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Maryland explores faster way to approve sports betting

Maryland explores faster way to approve sports betting

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Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller talks about plans for legislation to approve sports betting in the state, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019 in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller talks about plans for legislation to approve sports betting in the state, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019 in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers are exploring a faster way to approve sports betting this year, but it’s unclear if they will be able to do it without voter approval in 2020.

Voters endorsed a constitutional amendment allowing casinos in 2008, but further commercial gambling expansion requires another voter referendum. Lawmakers failed to pass legislation to put sports betting on last November’s ballot, but momentum appears to be building to act this year.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker proposed to legalize and tax betting on professional sports online and at casinos in Massachusetts. The Republican announced he would file legislation allowing the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to license the state’s three casino operators to offer both on-site and online betting.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May overturned federal law prohibiting states from legalizing sports betting. As neighboring states like Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New Jersey have added sports betting to lure gamblers, some Maryland lawmakers don’t want to wait until 2020. Now, some Maryland lawmakers are looking at a potential loophole: Regulate sports betting through the state lottery instead of private entities.

“If we can find a way to do it without referendum, I’m certainly amenable to move forward this year,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, told reporters Thursday.

Alexandra Hughes, chief of staff for House Speaker Michael Busch, also a Democrat, said the speaker is looking at all options.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan expressed skepticism about legalizing sports betting without a referendum, describing the concept as “so hypothetical.”

“The odds are good that we’re going to have sports betting. Something’s going to happen in the next 83 days, but there’s lots of ideas, and I have no idea exactly how it’s going to shake out,” Hogan, a Republican, said, referring to the remaining days of the state’s 90-day legislative session.

Del. Anne Kaiser, a Maryland Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said she’s confident lawmakers will pass legislation this session, but it’s unclear what path the General Assembly will take.

“All the details are still out there so we don’t know, and then we don’t know if the option that everyone’s talking about — about going through the lottery — means it doesn’t go to the voters,” Kaiser said. “That’s not definite, so everything’s still being talked about.”

In 1972, Maryland voters approved a constitutional amendment to create the lottery, which has authority to consider various forms of lottery games without further approval. However, questions could be raised about the degree to which private entities such as casinos, horse racing tracks or lottery vendors could be involved before a new program would effectively become an expansion of commercial gambling. That could open the state up to legal challenges, the Senate president noted Thursday.

“Unfortunately, there are going to be lawsuits no matter who does what,” Miller said.

Gordon Medenica, Maryland’s lottery director, said one question lawyers are examining is the definition of lottery operation. The lottery currently does much of its work through vendors. Medenica questioned whether the lottery would need to have state employees run a sports book, which he doesn’t think would be a wise choice.

The lottery director said some clarification to the law may be needed in terms of how lottery games are defined, as well as clarification in what it means for a game to be “operated by” the lottery.

“We’re prepared as an agency — obviously, we were prepared a year ago — to embrace it, and we’re certainly keeping up with all of the developments in sports betting,” Medenica said.

Medenica noted that more steps would be needed to put sports betting in place, even if the state moves more swiftly than a ballot question would allow and regulates the betting through the lottery.

“If that were to succeed, we would then still need to go into a procurement process, so it probably wouldn’t be able to hit the market until early 2020 anyway, and so we could probably gain a year in terms of when we could actually launch some real sports betting in the state,” Medenica said.

Associated Press writer Bob Salsberg contributed to this report in Boston.

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