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Legal sports gambling in Ohio by next year 'a safe bet'
11th November, 02:02Buckeye fans in the Horseshoe next fall might be able to pull out their smartphones and bet on whether the team picks up a first down when facing a fourth-and-1.
Sports wagering isn't legal in Ohio yet, but some state legislators are betting that a bill will make it to the governor's desk before the legislature leaves next spring.
But the biggest barrier to letting people bet on football games isn't whether to include collegiate teams; everyone GateHouse Media Ohio spoke to agreed that is inevitable. And it's not about online betting; two bills pending in the legislature would let fans use their phones to bet from anywhere in the state.
The split is whether to put the Ohio Casino Commission or the Ohio Lottery Commission in charge.
"I haven't been persuaded yet that it should be moved to the lottery commission," said state Sen. Sean O'Brien, D-Bazetta.
He's a sponsor of Senate Bill 111, which would give regulatory authority to the casino commission. It would legalize sports books at Ohio's 11 casinos and racinos and collect a 6.25% tax on their profits.
That would be one of the lowest rates in the country: New Jersey taxes sports betting at 8.5%, and Pennsylvania levies a whopping 36%.
In contrast, House Bill 194 would levy a 10% tax and dedicate the revenue for education and gambling-addiction programs.
Under either plan, the money coming into Ohio's coffers would be minimal. O'Brien said the estimates he has seen are $8 million to $12 million annually.
That's about on par with the pace set by Indiana in its first month of wagering, in September: The state reaped $813,000, according to data released by the Indiana Gaming Commission.
Ohio's biennial budget is about $69 billion, and Columbus City Schools spends more than $1 billion a year. That makes sports betting revenue equivalent to the state finding $20 in its winter coat pocket.
But Rep. Dave Greenspan, a sponsor of the House bill, said pushing out black-market betting is just as important to him as any tax revenue Ohio might received from sports betting.
"We have to recognize that this is happening illegally," the Westlake Republican said.
Illegal phone apps for sports betting don't direct people to gambling-addiction services if they suddenly increase the number or dollar amounts of their bets, he said. Apps don't report suspicious betting activity to universities or professional sports leagues. And their companies, which are often located offshore, aren't subject to oversight.
"Twenty other states have legalized sports gambling" in the year since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal law limiting it to a handful of states, Greenspan told his colleagues during a House hearing on Thursday. Ohio, he said, is losing out.
But that doesn't mean he's going to compromise on certain parts of his bill. He obtained a June opinion from the Ohio Legislative Service Commission that classified sports gambling as a game of chance that could be treated as a lottery.
That would open the door to sports books at about 1,200 fraternal and veterans organizations and 3,000 bars where lottery terminals already exist.
"It's no secret that as our membership grows older, it has become increasingly difficult to attract younger veterans to join," American Legion Department of Ohio coordinator Jermaine Ferguson told the House panel. "We believe sports gaming would appeal to younger veterans and would help increase participation in our organizations."
O'Brien's bill, in contrast, wouldn't allow that. The Warren-area Democrat said he has concerns about the costs and feasibility of regulating thousands of sports books across the state.
Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, expressed similar concerns to The Columbus Dispatch in June.
Where both Greenspan and O'Brien can agree, however, is that betting on college sports should be legal if Ohio hopes to lures bettors away from the black market.
"Let's be honest," O'Brien said. "We know collegiate games are going to be bet on whether we put them in or not."
Ohio's public universities and more than 50 of the state's private colleges have said they oppose letting people bet on college sports; so does the NCAA. They all contend that legalizing betting on student-athletes could undermine the integrity of games and jeopardize the welfare of players.
Both bills also leave a lot of details up to the regulating agencies. They don't specify whether bets on certain sports, such as club competition on college campuses, would be permissible.
"We've intentionally left some things vague as we are trying to get through this," O'Brien said.
One reason is that regulations can be changed faster than statutes. A regulator, O'Brien said, could move more quickly to permit or ban betting on e-sports, for example, than could lawmakers in the Statehouse.
The other part is because he's open to input from other legislators, even Greenspan.
"We've been working on this for well over a year. ... I think we will get to an agreement, "O'Brien said. "That's a safe bet."
Contact Anna Staver at email@example.com. On Twitter: @AnnaStaver.