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Eye on Annapolis

The Daily Record's Maryland state government blog

Special session eyed to get Md. sports betting on November ballot

Sports betting at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 2013. Nevada currently is the only state where single-game wagering is legal. But should the U.S. Supreme Court uphold a New Jersey’s law legalizing such betting at the state’s racetracks and casinos, it could lead to a nationwide repeal of a federal sports betting ban. (DepositPhotos/NickNick)

Sports betting at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 2013.  (DepositPhotos/NickNick)

Could odds be improving for the chances of a special legislative session on sports betting?

That’s the question being asked by some lawmakers. The answer, privately, is “possibly.” A deadline looms for getting a referendum question on the November ballot as Maryland faces the possibility of being left behind — perhaps by as much as two years — while neighboring states make a play for bettors’ money.

While House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. aren’t commenting, lawmakers, lobbyists and longtime legislative observers say the discussions are happening with an eye on the election calendar and the end of July.

Sen. Nancy J. King, D-Montgomery County and co-chair of the Joint Committee on Gaming Oversight, said she’s heard the talk. When asked if she was keeping her calendar open at the end of July in case of a special session, King replied: “Yes.”

King said the biggest issue, a dispute between the House and Senate over where sports betting would be allowed, could be resolved to clear the way for a short session.

“We could do it with a basic bill, a stripped-down bill,” said King, noting that such a measure could include both racetracks and casinos as sites where sports betting would be allowed.

Other details — including whether or not major sports leagues and collegiate sports get a cut — could be worked out when a new legislature convenes in January.

In Annapolis, the phrase “special session” is tossed around casually as both promise and threat, both very possible and highly unlikely.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. will routinely talk about special sessions even as the legislature is moving to finish a regular 90-day meeting.

One only has to look back at the interim following the 2017 session and the kerfuffle over the state’s medical cannabis program for an example.

Gov. Larry Hogan, the first-term Republican, would have to call a special session or a majority of lawmakers would have to sign a petition calling for the session. Hogan could have an interest in not seeing a special session as it would give the General Assembly a chance to override any of the nine vetoes issued by the governor.

A spokesman for Miller said the Senate president does not believe the governor wants a special session.

A spokeswoman for Hogan could not immediately comment.

But circumstances could force a special session as other neighboring states are already moving into the business of sports betting.

Maryland’s gaming laws were written into the state constitution when video slots ere first approved a decade ago. Any changes to gaming law, including the approval of new forms of gambling, require a change to the constitution, which requires a super-majority of the General Assembly and approval of voters.

If the General Assembly does nothing in the next few weeks, Maryland would not be able to get into the sports gaming business until after the 2020 elections at the earliest.

New Jersey, whose case was decided favorably by the Supreme Court, already has sports betting, as does Delaware, which moved from a parlay system to single-game betting model that did $7 million in business in the first 20 days of operation, providing $1 million in revenue to the state.

West Virginia was the only state this year to approve legalized sports betting contingent on a high court ruling. That state will allow wagering at its five casinos and on smartphone apps.

Pennsylvania has 13 licenses available for sports betting, though none have been issued as of yet.

Then, there are what some would describe as the urgent and unrelenting needs of the state’s K-12 education system and the looming Kirwan Commission recommendations, expected to call for up to $2 billion more for education funding. Lawmakers and the state’s next governor will want to turn over every sofa cushion in a search for cash, and revenue from the state’s casino industry has proven to be a major boost to school funding.

Lawmakers ended the 2018 session without a deal that would place sports betting on Maryland’s ballot in November despite appeals by the gaming industry and the expectation of a favorable decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Both the House of Delegates and the Senate expressed interest in getting a deal done. Each had legislation.

The House of Delegates favored a bill that would allow casinos and larger horse racing tracks to apply for licenses — a version some observers said was meant to delay gaming expansion, given the House’s long-standing discomfort with gambling.

The Senate legislation simply wanted to legalize sports gaming with a promise to resolve locations in 2019 — a promise some said was pushed by Miller, who favors casinos over racetrack venues.

In the end, differences in philosophy triumphed over the potential millions in extra gaming revenue.

Exactly how much could come to Maryland is not known.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a lot of money,” said King, the gaming committee co-chair. “I know a lot of people who do this online, and there’s no way to ever catch that. I would just love to have a way for people to do it legally if they choose to do so.”


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