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Branches taking different paths on sports betting
3rd March, 16:25BOSTON -- More than a year in the making, the first bill to legalize sports betting in Massachusetts emerged from a joint House-Senate committee Friday and took one step closer to becoming reality. But its path through the Legislature could become complicated by the fact that none of the senators on the committee weighed in one way or another on the legislation.
The sports betting bill that was released by the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies would allow adults 21 or older to place bets in person at the state's casinos, slots parlor or live horse tracks, and through web or mobile apps if they are physically in Massachusetts when they make the wager. Regulators at the Massachusetts Gaming Commission would be given the discretion to write the actual rules for sports wagering.
The bill is expected to go to the House Committee on Ways and Means next to get it moving in the House but beyond that, the Massachusetts Senate is not sending a clear signal of its intent and is framing sports betting as a House initiative that the Senate could give some thought to later down the line.
None of the seven senators on the economic development committee voted to release the bill last week and it got the joint committee endorsement with only support from representatives. Senators on the committee could not say how or whether sports betting fits into their chamber's plan for the five months that remain for formal lawmaking.
Instead of voting for or against the bill, all seven senators on the joint committee made up of seven senators and 13 representatives opted instead to reserve their rights, essentially declining to take a position one way or another on the proposed legislation.
"The Senate members of the joint committee have opted to reserve our opinion as legislation moves to the House for further consideration on their side," Sen. Eric Lesser, the Senate chair of the committee, said in a statement. "Doing so will allow us to keep the process moving. The Senate will consider sports wagering legislation if or when something is sent to us from the House."
Sen. Brendan Crighton, the second-ranking senator on the joint committee, said the decision was made for senators to refrain from weighing in because the legislation up for a vote was a "House-led bill."
"It was a House bill, it was a House redraft, so the senators came to the conclusion that we were going to reserve our rights. It doesn't mean we're saying no to sports betting," the Lynn Democrat, who has filed his own sports betting legislation, told the News Service on Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Cindy Creem, who opposed the 2011 expansion of casino gambling in Massachusetts, said she is "inclined" to oppose sports betting, but opted to withhold judgment on the committee bill.
"We don't know what the final bill is going to look like and I think that was a concern," Creem said, despite the fact that all committee members, from the House and Senate, had access to the committee bill before the poll ended. "For me, I was someone who voted against gaming so I'm inclined to feel that way about this. But, of course, I haven't seen the final bill and I don't know what might persuade me."
The four other senators who serve on the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies -- Democrats Sens. Paul Feeney, Walter Timilty and Anne Gobi, and Republican Sen. Patrick O'Connor -- did not return calls from the News Service on Monday.
Senators are opting for a wait-and-see approach, in which the Senate would consider sports betting legislation "if or when" the House passes its own bill, Lesser said, but Creem and Crighton were less than certain Monday that the full Senate will get around to a debate on sports betting before formal sessions come to a close July 31.
"There's a lot of things I see coming down the pike and I don't know where this fits in," Creem, the Senate's second in command, told the News Service on Monday morning. She added that senators on the committee have been doing work related to sports betting. "I don't know where it is on the list of priorities."
Crighton, who has been advocating for legalizing sports betting for more than a year, said he's hopeful for Senate action this session.
"I hope that we do take it up. We have a pretty full agenda with transportation, housing, health care, and an economic development bill most likely, but I think we should give it a serious look," he said. "I am supportive of sports betting being legalized and bringing folks out of the shadows and into a better regulated and safer market for consumers."
If the topic of sports betting does come up in the Senate this session, Creem said there is one issue she will make sure is addressed in the bill.
"I am 100 percent opposed to dog racing simulcasting and I will do whatever I can to make sure that this does not become part of this law," she said, adding that she would like to see a bill that explicitly outlaws dog racing simulcasting and wagering.
A voter initiative to ban dog racing passed in Massachusetts in 2008 and the prohibition on live dog racing here took effect 2010. But races in other states are regularly simulcast in Massachusetts and bettors can wager on the results at a handful of simulcasting centers. Animal rights advocates have pressed the Legislature to end simulcast wagering on dog races, regardless of where they are held.