Sports betting in Maryland before 2020 is a long shot despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday that now gives states the ability to legalize the activity.
The complex decision strikes down a 25-year old federal law that has prohibited most states from allowing betting on college and professional sports. Many states including some of Maryland’s neighbors are expected to quickly begin legalizing the activity.
Maryland, however, will be at least two years behind after lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would put the issue on the ballot in November because of a chasm between the House and Senate over where to allow sports betting. Suggestions that a special session could be called for this year also appear problematical, despite Democratic legislative leaders saying they are receptive to the idea.
“Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia will be among the first states to legalize sports betting,” said Del. Jason C Buckel, R-Allegany, who has sponsored legislation in the past to study or legalize sports betting in Maryland. “This is a failure of the Senate to pass the House legislation, and now we might have to wait until 2020.”
Buckel called for a special session to resolve the issue and put it before voters in November — a requirement since the state placed gaming law in the Maryland Constitution when it first authorized slot machines in 2007.
The Supreme Court ruled Monday morning in a case involving New Jersey that a 25-year-old federal law meant to prohibit most states from authorizing sports betting violated the Tenth Amendment and the anticommandeering rule.
Currently, just four states offer some form of sports betting — Delaware, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon. Of those, only Nevada allows betting on the outcomes of individual games.
The decision clears the way for states to authorize sports betting. Pennsylvania and West Virginia are already poised to take advantage of the new ruling.
Buckel said the failure to act in Maryland could cost the state millions of dollars and dull its competitive edge.
“I think it’s silly to let our state fall behind,” said Buckel. “I have no idea why Annapolis is so intimidated by the concept of gaming. Our state is replete with gambling. We’re a very well-regulated, mature gambling state.”
Exactly how much money Maryland is leaving on the table, perhaps temporarily, is not clear.
In October, officials from Maryland Live told lawmakers the legalization of sports betting in Maryland could result in as much as $100 million in additional revenue for the state and “hundreds if not thousands of new jobs.”
But lawmakers, including Del. Frank S. Turner, D-Howard County and co-chair of the Joint Committee on Gaming Oversight, point out that the amount of money taken in by casinos in Nevada is less than 2 percent of the total amount earned from all forms of gaming in that state.
The General Assembly, encouraged by the state’s casinos, took up the issue this session in expectation of a favorable decision from the nation’s top court.
But differences between the House and Senate derailed the effort.
Turner, who sponsored a bill that would have authorized a referendum question contingent on a favorable Supreme Court ruling, said a special session on the issue could be done in a day.
“I don’t know if there is the will to do it and I don’t know that either side wants to work it out,” said Turner, speaking of the House and Senate. “They could have worked it out this session and didn’t.”
Turner said he doesn’t plan on having any direct talks with Sen. Nancy King, D-Montgomery and co-chair of the gaming oversight committee.
“This is something that the presiding officers need to work out first,” said Turner.
King was not immediately available for comment.
Both House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said they were supportive of the legalizing sports gaming. They were less committed to the idea of a special session.
“The speaker supports a referendum, as evidenced by the fact that the House passed legislation overwhelmingly this year to put it on the ballot in 2018,” said a spokeswoman for Busch. “It is up to the governor on whether to call a special session.”
A spokesman for Miller offered a similar comment.
“If the governor is open to making the expansion of gaming a priority, we’re amenable to a special session,” said Miller’s spokesman. “There are a lot of complicated issues that still need to be resolved.”
The biggest of those issues is where the activity would be allowed.
The House favored placing sports betting at both racetracks and the state’s six casinos. While much of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee appears to favor a casino-only approach, leaders in that chamber said they would have supported a bill that put the issue on the November general election ballot and allowed lawmakers to work out the details of where to allow the activity in the 2019 session.
Gov. Larry Hogan last year had his attorney file an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in support of New Jersey’s case.
A Hogan spokeswoman said the governor is open to sports betting but appeared to suggest that a special session was not likely.
“Legalizing sports betting in Maryland will require action by the General Assembly, and ultimately a referendum on the ballot,” said Shareese N. Churchill. “The governor has previously expressed support for the rights of states to make this determination, and we anticipate this issue will be debated in the next legislative session.”
Some members of the legislature privately expressed concern about the popularity of the issue with Maryland voters.
A 2017 poll conducted by Annapolis-based Gonzales Research and Media Services found that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed opposed or strongly opposed sports betting in Maryland compared to nearly 29 percent of those surveyed who supported or strongly supported legalizing the activity.
“It’s been a year and this is an issue where I am sure people’s opinions have evolved, but I doubt that they have evolved to the point where this is overwhelmingly favorable,” said Patrick Gonzales, who runs the Gonzales Poll. “I think those numbers are still relevant.”
Finally, calling a special session is difficult in most years but especially so in an election year as the state is just about a month away from the start of early voting.
Some Maryland casinos applauded the decision and said sports betting should be allowed in the state under a specific set of conditions.
“Sports betting should be made available exclusively through the regulated casinos in Maryland, where it is best positioned to protect consumers and maximize tax revenues to the state,” said Lori A. Russo, a spokeswoman for Maryland Live Casino in Hanover.
A representative of the Maryland Jockey Club was not available.
Turner, the Howard County legislator, said “something should be done for the horse racing tracks.”
But Turner, who is retiring from the legislature, acknowledged that a special session is probably not in the cards but said there is little risk to the state to do it in 2020.
“It’s not earth-shattering,” said Turner. “If we don’t do it now, we’ll do it (in 2019).”