A Louisiana sports betting ballot measure bill could pass out of the legislature as early as this week after a House committee overwhelmingly supported two identical measures that would allow voters to approve wagering in their home parishes this fall.
The bills, sponsored by Sens. Cameron Henry and Ronnie Johns, respectively, would place a simple yes-no question on the Nov. 3 ballot asking voters if sports betting could be legalized within their parish. Notably, it doesn’t include critical regulatory and taxation measures, which will have to be agreed to by the legislature in a future session.
Speaking after Henry during Tuesday’s meeting of the House criminal justice committee, Johns said he was continuing the unusual push to further a bill that was identical to his colleague’s to serve as a “backup” should the first proposal get bogged down in the legislative process.
Johns, one of the legislature’s leading gaming advocates, took office in 2012. Henry was elected to the Senate in 2018 after 10 years in the House.
In 2019, Henry chaired the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which amended a Senate-backed sports betting bill that allowed in-person wagering at state casinos and horse tracks, to grant similar access to thousands of Louisiana video poker gaming terminals. Already facing pressure from House conservatives opposed to any new gaming bill, the proposal died after the casino industry pulled its support for legislation that also allowed the terminals to take wagers.
In a state where gambling still remains taboo in many circles, video poker terminals were a bridge too far. More than 20 states have approved sports betting bills, but none of them authorize these types of privately-operated machines to take sports bets.
The full Senate already approved Henry and Johns’ 2020 bills, meaning a “yes” vote from the House floor all but assures voters will have their say on sports betting in 2020. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards could still look to amend or veto the bill passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, but that seems highly unlikely after he has largely championed gaming measures during his term in office.
The two Senate proposals join a House bill with only minor differences. House Bill 357 could be taken up as early as Wednesday for a floor vote, upon which it would be sent to the upper chamber. By that point, it appears one of the two Senate bills will have already been approved by the House and sent to the governor.
Should any one of the three bills pass, all Louisiana voters will see a straightforward question on their 2020 ballot to approve sports betting. If a majority of voters in a parish approve, legal wagering can be conducted within that jurisdiction.
It’s safe to assume at least one parish approves sports betting, especially after the majority approved daily fantasy sports two years ago via a similar ballot measure and most have either a video poker terminal, horse track or casino. Sports betting backers in the legislature agree this is the easiest way to advance sports betting after efforts failed each of the past two years, but the limited framework leaves critical questions unanswered.
The biggest issue remains purveyor access.
In theory, the ballot measure opens the door for full mobile betting in every parish that approves sports wagering. Though mobile wagering leads to far greater revenue potential, it also presents a more difficult political hurdle, especially in states with strong conservative influences in their legislatures that fear what they consider ubiquitous gambling. Neither neighboring Mississippi nor Arkansas, that latter of which approved sports betting via a ballot measure in 2018, allows wagers outside licensed gaming facilities.
With or without full mobile access, battles lines are sure to be drawn around land-based purveyors.
Legislative efforts spearheaded by former Sen. Danny Martiny in 2018 and 2019 would allow the state’s horse tracks and casinos to take in-person sports bets. This angered video poker terminal supporters in the House who wanted the hundreds of restaurants, bars and truck stops with the digital portals to be able to take bets as well.
Henry has received campaign contributions from companies represented by lobbyist Alton Ashy, the video poker industry’s leading advocate in the capitol. Though he won’t have the influence of the House Appropriations chairmanship should a sports betting regulation bill emerge following the referendum, it seems a good bet Henry will be a leading voice in the Senate to allow sports betting at the terminals.
Commercial gaming giants including DraftKings, FanDuel, Boyd Gaming, Caesars, Penn National and ElDorado wrote support for Henry’s bill ahead of Tuesday’s committee vote. That will likely change if the follow-up measure includes the terminals.
The two bills advanced Tuesday join a third already awaiting action before the full House floor give the sports betting ballot referendum solid footing as it nears the end of the legislative process. But the same fractures that sunk sports betting in Louisiana previously are already starting to show, even before the legislation has passed.