Massachusetts’ unemployment rate remains among the highest in the nation, many businesses have shuttered for good, and municipal officials across the state are crying out for changes in the law that will encourage much-needed housing development.
But state lawmakers, who have been wrestling with a $455 million economic development bill, continue to waste time and energy over sports betting. Seriously?
It’s time legislators, who have pretty much taken a month-long hiatus, got back to work on the critical issues facing this Commonwealth — and definitely not on the “critical issues” list is whether residents can plunk down a few of their increasingly scarce bucks on the next Patriots game or, even worse, the next Boston College football game.
By the end of July, the Senate and House each had passed versions of an economic development and housing production bill — which differed on any number of proposed line-item grants but were largely aligned on objectives. High on that list of objectives were versions of Governor Charlie Baker’s Housing Choices bill — a proposal to reduce voting thresholds for zoning changes from the current two-thirds to a simple majority. The measure — now more than two and a half years in the making — is an essential first step in increasing housing production in this state.
It was among the many crucial issues on which the House and Senate agreed, needing only to work out some language differences. There were also tens of millions of dollars for affordable housing, economic development projects, and special grants to hard-hit cultural facilities to help deal with the costs of reopening in a world still under the threat of a pandemic.
Late in the legislative process, the House added provisions legalizing sports betting, including betting on college sports — an issue the Senate has largely ignored all year and didn’t include in its version.
The two bills then entered the black hole of a legislative conference committee — six members (three from each branch) who meet behind closed doors to thrash out their differences. That was seven weeks ago.
One thing that has become public during that time is a letter from the presidents and athletic directors of eight Massachusetts colleges and universities that field Division I sports teams. That letter to the members of the conference committee, along with House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, protested any attempt to allow betting in this state on college athletics.
The letter, from officials at Boston College, Boston University, Harvard University, Northeastern University, The College of the Holy Cross, Merrimack College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Lowell, told lawmakers, “allowing gambling on collegiate sports will increase temptations and pressures on student athletes to influence the outcome of games or point spreads in return for financial reward or other benefits from betting interests.”
They particularly protested “prop betting,” which, the letter noted, “unlike traditional bets on the outcome of a game, permits betting on particular occurrences in a contest, such as whether the next play will be a run or a pass, a curve or fastball, or a 2-point or 3-point basket attempt.”
It shouldn’t take a college president or athletic director — let alone eight of them — to tell lawmakers what an ugly idea that is. The state may well be desperate for revenue in the year ahead — but not at the risk of its basic values.
Sports betting in general is a marginal revenue producer. When Baker filed his sports betting bill in January 2019 — which did not include wagering on college sports — the administration estimated the revenue at about $35 million a year. A year later, when many of our neighboring states had already taken the plunge, this editorial board expressed support for legalizing betting on professional but not college sports.
One thing is clear — the issue of sports betting isn’t critical to the Commonwealth’s long-term economic success nor to the short-term economic viability of its businesses and institutions. But the housing and economic development bill now in conference committee truly is.
Memo to House conferees: Let it go. Fight over the little stuff another time.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.