What was shaping as the busiest year for U.S. gaming legislation in recent memory was, like nearly every other legislative endeavor, curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, even as nearly every sports league in the world suspended operations, several states legalized sports betting and a handful more will place measures to do so on their respective 2020 ballots.
As most states begin their 2020-2021 fiscal years, here are the gaming legislation highlights from 2020’s first half.
Crossed the Finish Line
Two states passed sports betting bills before the full onslaught of the virus took effect in March. Both expect to take bets by 2021, if not earlier.
Virginia passed the most consequential gaming bills of 2020. The Old Dominion legalized brick-and-mortar casinos for the first time in its history and approved mobile as well as retail sports betting. Virginia regulators began promulgating sports betting rules with the hopes wagering could begin before the end of 2020.
Whenever it begins, Virginia’s young, tech-savvy and growing population could create a dynamic online sports betting market that joins Pennsylvania and New Jersey among the most lucrative in the country.
On the other side of the country, Washington lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bill permitting retail sportsbooks at Native American casinos. Though more limited than Virginia’s bill, the legislation brings another market into the U.S. expansion race.
Sports Betting Referendums
A geographically diverse trio approved sports betting referendums for their respective 2020 ballots. If voters approve legal wagering this November, sports betting could begin as early as 2021.
After falling short in 2018 and 2019, Louisiana finally passed a sports betting bill earlier this year. Unlike other states’ ballot measures, Louisiana’s bill will be on a parish-by-parish level; if a majority of voters reject the measure, wagering can’t be conducted in said municipality.
But backers are optimistic that most of the more heavily populated parishes will vote “yes,” especially after most easily approved daily fantasy sports authorization in 2018. Notably, legislators will have to pass a follow-up 2021 bill that settles tax rates and if wagering will be permitted via mobile devices and/or video poker terminals.
Maryland seemed poised to approve statewide mobile betting earlier this year, but conflicts over operator access and ownership stalled those efforts. The coronavirus outbreak compelled legislators to punt on the key details for 2020 and instead simply ask voters on this year’s ballot whether or not the state constitution should be amended to allow sports betting.
Assuming a majority of voters approve the constitutional amendment referendum this November, lawmakers in Annapolis will then have to hammer out the key details that stumped them in 2020. Legal sportsbooks in every neighboring state will likely motivate a solution.
South Dakota voters will also have a chance to approve legal wagering on their 2020 ballots. Like in Louisiana and Maryland, lawmakers must pass follow-up tax and regulatory legislation if voters approve sports betting. The biggest issue would be restricting betting to the Deadwood gaming community or permitting statewide mobile access.
A few legislatures continue to meet, keeping hopes alive that a few more jurisdictions could pass sports betting bills in the year’s second half.
After years lingering in committee, the Ohio House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a mobile sports betting bill to the Senate. The upper chamber is weighing a slightly different version of the bill, creating a possible legislative roadblock, but backers are bullish on a passed bill by as early as this fall.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and the Democrat-controlled General Court have introduced nearly a dozen sports betting bills in the past year, but none have gained serious traction. Still, with leaders in both parties still largely behind legal wagering, the bill could see a quick turnaround from stagnation to signature.
Bills That Fell Short
Another dozen or so serious sports betting contenders fell short in 2020, largely due to curtailed legislative sessions. While the coronavirus’ impact on state budgets revigorated sports betting hopes in a few states desperate for new revenue sources, the outbreak, and entrenched political obstacles, stopped every other bill short of the finish line.
In February, Kentucky seemed like it could be the first state to pass a sports betting bill after legislation passed a House committee without opposition. But conservative opposition from House leadership stalled the bill, halting its momentum by March.
When the full outbreak began later that month, backers hoped a looming budget shortfall could compel reticent lawmakers to allow in-person wagering at state horse tracks, ostensibly as a new tax source. That wasn’t enough to include sports betting in Kentucky’s revised budget before the session ended in April and thwarted legal sports betting for the year.
Kansas too had passed a sports betting bill out of committee before March, but conflicts over purveyor access stalled legislation in Topeka. By March, lawmakers abandoned sports betting hopes for 2020, instead searching for other ways to deal with rising state healthcare costs and dwindling state funds.
Across the Missouri River, Show Me State lawmakers weighed a handful of competing betting bills for much of the first half of the year. But even with bipartisan, bicameral support, sports betting fell to the wayside as elected officials scrambled to deal with the virus.
The pandemic reignited Georgia’s sports betting interest after legislation floundered for months. In mid-June, a Senate committee touted the beleaguered bill as revenue booster, but leadership didn’t take up on the full floor before the 2020 session expired later that month.
The biggest prize in the U.S. sports betting expansion race tantalized the industry when lawmakers revived a constitutional amendment ballot measure in May. State cardrooms celebrated the measure, but Native American groups unilaterally opposed it, effectively killing the legislation before it reached the Senate floor.
Other Noteworthy Developments
Since the Supreme Court struck down the federal wagering ban in 2018, sports betting legislation has been the biggest gaming development in most statehouses, but there were a handful of additional noteworthy measures passed in the year’s first half.
- Pennsylvania liquor license holders can expand their gaming offerings in a bill passed last month intended to boost revenues in one of the nation’s largest gaming markets
- Louisiana passed a daily fantasy sports taxation bill, allowing eligible operators such as DraftKings and FanDuel to enter the market more than 18 months after voters in most parishes approved the games
- California sports betting could come via the 2022 ballot after a court ruled state tribes could continue their signature petition drive that was essentially shut down by the coronavirus. If the tribes collect roughly 100,000 more verified signatures by Oct. 12, 2020, the 2022 ballot will determine if retail sportsbooks can open on tribal lands.