Lawmakers in the great state of Ohio took their first baby steps down the path of legalization last Thursday with the introduction of a bill to legalize sports betting.
Ohio now joins a growing number of states that are revisiting the issue after May’s Supreme Court decision ended the decades-long federal sports betting prohibition.
Senate Bill 316 is short on details beyond letting readers know it wants legal sports betting in Ohio. In fact, it has no details whatsoever as it is intended to be a conversation-starter and placeholder for now. The entirety of the text reads as follows:
“Section 1. It is the intent of the General Assembly to develop and enact legislation legalizing sports wagering.”
Senators John Eklund and Sean O’Brien are listed as the bill’s primary sponsors. Although barely a sentence long in its current form, SB 316 already has one positive thing going for it: bipartisan support – at least among the two lawmakers who sponsored it. Senator Eklund is a Republican and Senator O’Brien is a Democrat.
According to Cleveland.com, O’Brien said the bill’s terse wording is intentional. Their goals for now are simply to start the conversation, let people know the senators are working on sports betting and to get other people to chime in with their opinions.
However, that doesn’t mean Senators O’Brien and Eklund are planning to take their sweet time on this. O’Brien told Cleveland.com that they would like to pass legislation quickly, especially with neighbor state Pennsylvania making moves into sports betting.
Lawmakers Eager to Act and Avoid Another Public Referendum
The senators may also be motivated to act quickly by outside interests that have already started showing up with money to spend. Just two weeks after the Supreme Court decision, the Toledo Blade reported that an organization called Open Ohio was in the process of preparing language for a constitutional amendment to legalize sports betting.
Open Ohio Chairman Rick Lertzman has stated that “there’s a lobbying effort by the casinos and a lot of money involved.” Lertzman wants sports betting to more accessible to the public rather than limiting it to casinos:
“Keeping this in seven racinos and four casinos is wrong. First, you’re limited to certain parts of the state. It would not be in Lima, Steubenville or Marietta. Second, the mom and pop-owned sports bar where people go on Sundays? People would go to Hollywood Casino in Toledo and avoid the sports bar because they want to do betting.”
A constitutional amendment of the type Open Ohio has proposed would require a public referendum, but it would take the power to craft legislation away from the legislature. This is exactly what happened with casino gambling in Ohio back in 2009.
After the legislature failed to pass a gambling bill, a pro-gambling group got a constitutional amendment put to referendum. The public voted in favor of the measure and the companies who brought the referendum to the voters in the first place won the exclusive right to operate casinos in four cities.
Representative Niraj Antani told the Journal-News last week that the legislature would like to avoid something like that happening again with sports betting:
“What we want to make sure is that this is not another issue like the casinos. We do not want an out of state special interest coming to Ohio and buying our ballot and telling us how we are going to regulate or have sports betting.”
What Will Sports Betting Look Like in Ohio
It’s still way too early to make any firm predictions, but there are multiple competing interests that all have different visions of how Ohio sports betting should be managed and regulated. The two senators who introduced SB 316 last week sound open to ideas given that they said getting feedback is one of the reasons they introduced the placeholder bill.
Ohio casinos will likely push for control over sports betting, but whether they want it limited to casino property or to have the ability to offer wagers in other locations is something we’re still waiting to find out. That also leaves open the question of online sports betting, which is something that has been granted to casinos in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Open Ohio is pushing for widespread sports betting. Rick Lertzman reportedly wants to see sports betting legalized “in hundreds of restaurants, bars, fraternal clubs and entertainment venues” and believes the idea of limiting sports betting to casinos is a “monopolistic” idea.
In any case, we should start to see more details over coming months. Lertzman is pushing to get a referendum put on the November 2019 ballot and that will push lawmakers to act quickly in crafting sports betting legislation of their own.