Online and retail sports betting in Maryland could come in 2021 after lawmakers approved a bill that will ask voters to legalize wagering on this year’s ballot.

The Senate Wednesday unanimously approved drastic alterations to the legislation approved by the House the day before. House members removed most of the language in the original Senate bill, instead creating the text for the ballot question and adding clauses to assure minority and female participation in the licensing process.

Key clauses about which entities or groups could receive licenses, as well as tax rates and other key components of the bill, will need to be approved in a future legislative session.

The abridged bill passed out of the House Tuesday with minimal opposition. On Wednesday, the Senate approved the changes unanimously, sending it to Gov. Larry Hogan for final approval. With more than enough support to override a possible veto, and Hogan already publicly supporting the concept of sports betting, there’s little inclination the sports betting question won’t appear on the 2020 ballot.

Ballot Details

If a simple majority of voters statewide approve the ballot question in November, sports betting will technically be legal, though it will need subsequent legislative and regulatory approvals. Voters statewide are set to see the following question:

“Do you favor the expansion of commercial gaming in the State of Maryland to authorize sports and event betting for the primary purpose of raising revenue for education?”

The language is straightforward, especially compared to similar ballot questions in other states. Colorado law required its ballot measure to be phrased in the context of a tax increase, which caused confusion for voters and helped explain why it just narrowly passed.

Like Colorado, Maryland has a fairly progressive political track record, and gambling revenues have been an increasingly significant portion of the Old Line State’s education funding. Historical opposition to gambling in all forms has continued to thaw nationwide, but the razor-thin margin for the Colorado vote, even with its confusing language, is a reminder that voter approval for gambling is no sure bet.

Maryland Sports Betting Background

Maryland had seemed like an early leader to approve sports betting ever since the Supreme Court struck down the federal wagering ban in May 2018, allowing states to approve wagering on an individual basis. Lawmakers advanced sports betting legislation even before the court announced its decision, but were unable to finalize a bill by the time the 2018 legislative session concluded.

In 2019, legislators again considered sports betting legalization, but were largely sidelined by an attorney general opinion that wagering on sporting events would run afoul of the state constitution’s gambling provisions and therefore require an amendment via a voter-approved ballot referendum. Since there were no statewide elections in 2019, lawmakers punted to 2020.

With neighboring Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia taking bets, and Washington D.C. and Virginia set to do so, elected officials have a renewed sense of urgency to pass a bill in 2020. Committees in both the House and Senate held multiple hearings on the topic, and there seemed widespread, bipartisan consensus for the concept of sports betting. Lawmakers were still debating which stakeholders would be able to offer bets as well as their tax rate when the General Assembly decided to curtail its 2020 session in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Since sports betting would require voter support no matter what, and if a ballot measure wasn’t approved in 2020 it would mean that approval couldn’t come until 2022 at the earliest, backers in the legislature pushed a means to get that measure this year. With only a few days to pass that bill – and all the legislature’s other business for the 2020 session – that required stripping nearly every facet of the bill except a few core caveats and the actual ballot question itself.

Next Steps

The bill goes through largely perfunctory regulatory review and is set to appear on the ballot ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Advocates and opponents now have the better part of a year to lobby voters for or against the measure, though the beneficiaries are still undetermined.

If approved by voters, sports betting proceeds would go to state education funds, but lawmakers will have to determine the sources of those funds. There’s widespread support to allow online and retail sportsbooks at the state’s six commercial casinos, but lawmakers were divided over how (or if) to include horse racing and other interests. Along with the tax rate, which has ranged from 15% to 20% of sportsbook winnings, there are many crucial elements of Maryland sports betting that legislators need to resolve in 2021.

Still, sports betting supporters are bullish voters will back wagering come November. Taxes and purveyor access can be divisive, but now lawmakers have months to work out these differences behind the scenes as the legislature remains in recess. Quick action this week has likely not just salvaged the chances for Maryland sports betting in 2021, but put it on a path for ratification next year.

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