ANNAPOLIS — The prospects of Maryland entering the sports betting arena became a little more bleak after two key senators said such an effort would likely be put off another year.
“Unfortunately what happened is the House put an amendment in the (Maryland) constitution, which says it has to be approved by voters — any expansion of gambling — and we have an attorney general that has opined that because of this language we’re probably going to have to wait until next year to change the language of the constitution,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.
Miller’s declaration casts doubt on the likelihood of the issue being taken up this year and squelches optimism expressed by legislative leaders earlier about legalizing sports betting.
Currently, four bills, including one in the Senate, propose legalizing sports gaming, including through referendum.
House Ways and Means Chairwoman Anne Kaiser was not immediately available for comment.
Kaiser and Sen. Nancy King, D-Montgomery and chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, expressed optimism earlier this year that the legislature could pass sports betting legislation this year after failing to do so in 2018 in time for the November election.
The Supreme Court in May struck down a 25-year-old federal law meant to prohibit most states from authorizing sports betting saying it violated the Tenth Amendment and the anticommandeering rule.
Maryland lawmakers had sought to get ahead of the ruling last year with legislation proposed that would have allowed sports betting on the 2018 ballot contingent upon a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court. The effort fell apart when the House and Senate failed to reach an agreement on which venues would be eligible to host sports betting. The House sought to allow the activity at casinos and some horse racing venues. The Senate wanted to keep sports betting at the state’s six casinos.
Since then lawmakers have also sought to find a loophole in the state’s gambling provisions that were written into the Maryland Constitution in 2008.
“It’s a mistake when you put something in the constitution,” said Miller. “The constitution is our charter and when you put something in the constitution it can only be changed by the people who vote for it.
“(The House) put it in the constitution to block me and to block MGM,” said Miller. “I had to get a statewide vote for one casino.”
Any bill passed this year would require a three-fifths majority of both chambers to support it and the approval of voters. Such an amendment to the state constitution could not go before voters until 2020.
“Nothing’s going to happen this year — for sure,” King said. Her committee oversees gaming issues within the Senate. “I think we can pretty much guarantee that.”
The delay is also in keeping with Miller’s philosophy that the Senate not take up issues that would go to referendum until an election-year session.
A delay means Maryland falls further behind other states who were quick to legalize sports betting contingent upon a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last June or immediately thereafter. Seven states now have legalized sports betting, including Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New Jersey and Delaware, all states that can easily reach down into Maryland and pluck sports wagering dollars.
A proposal in the Maryland legislature making sports betting contingent upon the expected favorable high court ruling had died last year.
Lawmaker said they are not feeling the pressure to get anything done in the immediate future.
“I don’t hear from anyone about it,” said King. “There is no clamoring from the public to do it. So we just aren’t making as big thing about it this year.”