ANNAPOLIS — Efforts by the General Assembly to finalize the state’s sports betting industry is coming down to the wire.
The Senate Thursday gave preliminary approval to a bill that, if passed and signed by the governor, could allow the first sports betting operations in casinos as soon as this fall. But changes made to the House legislation sponsored by House Speaker Adrienne Jones, including a provision that could exponentially increase the number of available licenses, could create a hurdle.
“The House is still taking a look at their (the Senate) bill,” said Del. Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery, and a leader on Jones’ legislation.
The bill proposed by the leader of the House focused on ensuring equity in ownership opportunities for minorities as part of what she called her “Black agenda” for this session. Significant legal challenges prevent the General Assembly from specifically setting aside a number of licenses for minority and women owners despite studies showing both groups are disadvantaged.
The House version guaranteed licenses for the state’s six casinos as well as the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, Pimlico Race Course and the three professional sports stadiums.
Physical licenses for smaller owners, including off-track betting sites, were limited to less than a dozen. The most lucrative of the licenses — mobile applications known as “skins” in industry parlance — were limited to 15. Both tiers of licenses would be competitively bid.
On Thursday, the Senate approved a slate of 21 amendments, some of which beefed up minority opportunities, including the creation of a fund that would help minority owners come up with the cash needed to apply for a license, open a business or train employees. Another provision sends money to two of the state’s historically Black colleges and universities to create job training programs for the industry.
Another amendment, also aimed at allowing for more minority participation, was the lifting of caps on licenses.
The Senate version preliminarily approved Thursday grants licenses automatically to casinos and stadiums.
Licenses for off-track betting facilities, bingo halls and other smaller businesses and for mobile license are no longer bound by the House caps. Instead, any operator who can come up with the license fees and pass the requirements of a new licensing commission would be granted a license.
The number of licenses would be limited by restrictions that limit them to one per 15 miles in rural areas and one license per 1.5 miles in more urban areas.
Some in the House privately expressed concerns that the changes could allow for thousands of licenses — perhaps more than voters bargained for in 2020 when they approved a ballot question.
That change alone could be enough to send the bill to conference committee in the final weekend of the session.
“We are working as a team with the House,” Sen. Craig Zucker, D-Montgomery and chair of the Senate work group hat proposed the nearly two dozen changes. “There is no conference (committee) yet. We wanted to finish this first.”
The Senate could hold a final vote on Jones’ bill as early as Friday, leaving a conference committee Saturday and Monday to hammer out an agreement.
Despite the lack of groundwork laid before the Senate’s final vote, Zucker vowed to get the bill done before the final gavel.
“We are going to get sports betting done this year, and this bill is a road map to getting that done,” Zucker said during a Wednesday work group meeting.
Historically, the General Assembly has had a difficult relationship with gaming issues that led to years of debate over legalizing slot machines and later casinos. The efforts to establish a sixth casino was so bitter that it derailed passage of a state budget and resulted in two special sessions.
This is the third year the legislature has attempted to pass legislation to legalize sports betting. It’s a delay that has seen neighboring states hit the ground running in 2018 and allowed the District of Columbia and Virginia to start their programs last year.
Last year, efforts to craft legislation stalled in the final hours of a pandemic-shortened session. The effort resulted only in a change to the state constitution — approved by the voters — that would one day allow sports betting if lawmakers could pass a final bill.