Should sports betting be legal in Maryland? Voters will choose

Madeleine O’Neill

| USA TODAY NETWORK

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Election officials count mail-in ballots in Maryland

Election officials in Washington County, Maryland, begin counting mail-in ballots that have already arrived in advance of Election Day.

Maryland voters will decide whether to legalize sports betting when they cast their ballots this year.

Their choice will determine if Maryland joins the growing list of states that have embraced the industry since 2018.

The ballot measure, Question 2, simply asks: “Do you approve the expansion of commercial gaming in the State of Maryland to authorize sports and events betting for the primary purpose of raising revenue for education?”

When the coronavirus forced the General Assembly to end its session early in March, legislators passed a stripped-down bill that put only the core question to the voters.

If the measure passes, lawmakers will have to hammer out key details later, including a basic framework for what sports betting would look like in Maryland.

“I feel like we would have had a more comprehensive piece of legislation to present the voters had a global pandemic not happened,” said Sen. Craig Zucker, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the legislation.

“We just made a judgment call to get it on the ballot and allow voters to have their say,” he said.

Zucker’s original legislation, which was much more detailed, passed the Senate 47-0 in March. The House approved a pared-down version a week later, the day before the legislature ended its session early for the first time since the Civil War.

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The ballot question that voters will consider doesn’t mention mobile wagering, but Zucker said he expects the legislature will ultimately approve it. His original bill would have allowed for online sports betting.

“I can’t imagine a scenario where we wouldn’t allow mobile betting,” he said. “Eighty to 90 percent of sports betting is done online.”

Money for education

Legislative analysts estimated that legalizing sports betting could bring in annual revenues of about $20 million. The bill and the ballot question both state that the money would help fund education.

“Given the horrific economic impact of COVID, any additional revenue that we can get that would help toward education is important,” Zucker said.

More moneyfor schools would also be critical as legislators consider taking another shot at education reform. The General Assembly passed the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a bill based on the recommendations of a state panel known as the Kirwan Commission, in March.

As the COVID-19 pandemic threatened the state’s finances in the spring, Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the multibillion-dollar education bill, along with several other pieces of legislation that would have required additional spending.

Democrats in the legislature can override Hogan’s veto during the 2021 session.

Zucker said the additional revenues raised by sports betting would help make up for the money that was lost when Maryland’s casinos shut down because of the coronavirus. Casino revenues contribute to the state’s Education Trust Fund.

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“With the digital divide getting bigger because of COVID, any additional revenue we have from sports betting will help start plugging that hole,” Zucker said.

Delegate William Wivell, a Republican who represents Washington County, was one of three legislators who voted “no” on sending the sports betting legislation to the ballot.

He said in an interview that the revenues raised from sports betting are just a “drop in the bucket” compared to the financial issues that lawmakers need to address.

“The legislature has a spending problem, and the amount of revenue that’s going to be generated by sports betting is not going to bail them out of that problem,” Wivell said.

He is also concerned about the societal repercussions of more betting and the need for more programs to curb gambling’s negative effects. Those programs could offset the revenue that sports betting would bring in, he said.

“I just think at some point we have to set limits on what we’re gambling on,” he said. “We don’t have to bet on everything.”

What other states have done

Maryland would be among the last states in the region to adopt some form of sports betting.

Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia and the District of Columbia allow retail and mobile sports betting. Delaware has options for retail sports betting but doesn’t yet offer mobile betting.

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Virginia passed a bill legalizing sports betting this year, but the state’s program hasn’t started yet.

Sports gambling has proliferated since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 struck down a federal law that largely blocked states from authorizing betting on sports.

Almost 25 states have since legalized some form of sports betting, according to a tally kept by DraftKings, an online betting company.

“I hope Maryland voters approve this, because if we don’t get this done this November, by the time voters have an opportunity to vote on it again, maybe 75 percent of all states in the U.S. will have sports betting up and running,” Zucker said.

A Goucher College Poll in February found that Marylanders were divided on sports betting. Forty-seven percent said they supported expanding gambling to allow online sports betting, while 43 percent opposed it.

Forty-five percent said they support expanding gambling to include sports betting at locations like race tracks, casinos and stadiums, while 49 percent were opposed.

The ballot question has also attracted interest — and money — from DraftKings and FanDuel, which both stand to benefit from the expansion of online sports betting.

Campaign finance records show that the two companies contributed a total of $2.5 million during the most recent filing period to Vote Yes on Question 2, a ballot issue committee formed in support of sports betting.

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“Establishing a legal sports betting marketplace that offers innovation, consumer protections, and taxable income that can fund education programs will be a positive outcome for sports fans in the state of Maryland,” FanDuel said in a statement.

Several Maryland casinos also donated smaller amounts to a separate ballot issue committee favoring sports betting called Fund Our Future.

Zucker said he feels confident that voters will approve the measure.

“I’m not a big gambler myself, but if I were, I’d bet on sports betting passing the ballot measure,” he said.

Madeleine O’Neill covers the Maryland State House for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @maddioneill.

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