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Finding a Beacon Hill compromise on sports betting

Massachusetts residents should be allowed to gamble on college games — but not any involving in-state colleges.

Giant video screens line the walls of the sportsbook at the Borgata casino in Atlantic City on March 17, the first day of the “March Madness” NCAA college basketball tournament.Wayne Parry/Associated Press

Sports betting, it seems, is finally coming to Massachusetts.

After years of hems and haws, the state Senate is taking up a wagering bill today and could approve it before the Bruins and Sabres finish up their game tonight. And if it passes, as expected, then the real action begins — Senate and House negotiators will have to reach a compromise between the upper chamber’s cautious approach and the lower chamber’s more permissive legislation.

A compromise is just what the state needs.

The Senate’s bill — particularly its complete prohibition on betting on college sports — is too restrictive; there is a way to allow wagers on college games without compromising the integrity of student athletics. But some of its consumer protections — absent from the House legislation — are laudable.


We should pause here to say that legalized gambling of any kind is problematic. Addiction is a serious problem.

But gambling is here to stay. Massachusetts went all-in on casinos years ago. And when the Supreme Court opened the door to widespread legalization of sports betting in 2018, a market quickly bloomed. The professional sports leagues, once firmly opposed to gambling, embraced what could be a substantial moneymaker. (Among the teams that stand to benefit — the Red Sox, owned by John Henry, who also owns the Globe.)

And state legislature after state legislature, eager for tax revenue, started legalizing wagering, both online and in-person. About two-thirds of states now offer sports betting or are in the process of operationalizing it, according to the American Gaming Association. And here in Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker and House Speaker Ronald Mariano have been pressing the Senate to move on the issue for some time.

The politics of the Senate are different from those of the House. The upper chamber is more liberal — and more skeptical of gambling. Members’ districts are also substantially larger than those of their House colleagues. That means many senators have at least one college in or near their district, and they have to be sensitive to the concerns of higher education, which is firmly opposed to betting on college sports. In a 2020 letter to lawmakers, several schools with Division I sports programs wrote that legalized wagers would pose “unnecessary and unacceptable risks to student-athletes, their campus peers, and the integrity and culture of colleges and universities in the Commonwealth.”


Those are legitimate concerns. But House and Senate negotiators could address them by prohibiting bets on games involving in-state colleges alone while allowing consumers to wager on out-of-state college teams.

It’s an approach that several other states, including New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and Washington, have taken. And it would still allow Massachusetts bettors to wager on most major college football and “March Madness” college basketball games, since Bay State teams rarely compete at the top level in either of those sports.

College sports are an important part of the betting market. House leaders estimate that the state’s annual tax haul would shrink from about $60 million to roughly $25 to $35 million if college sports were excluded. And there’s no need to leave that kind of money on the table.

The estimate is based on the House’s proposed tax rates of 12.5 percent for in-person bets and 15 percent for mobile wagers. The state Senate would tax at higher rates — 20 percent for in-person and 35 percent for mobile. The argument for going with a lower tax rate is to stay competitive with neighboring states and keep the cost of a wager reasonable so bettors don’t turn to the black market.


But most bettors — like most cannabis consumers — prefer to operate in a legal market, even if it comes with a cost. Who wants to plug their credit card information into a shady offshore betting site for a March Madness office pool? Lawmakers should lean toward a higher tax rate.

To be clear, though, whatever rate the Legislature settles on, sports gambling won’t be a game changer. If it pulls in $60 or $70 million annually for the state, that would be a fraction of the $1 billion the lottery generates each year. And it would make for a small contribution to the state’s almost $50 billion annual budget.

House and Senate negotiators, then, shouldn’t be focused on squeezing every last dime out of sports wagering. And that means they should seriously consider some of the consumer protections built into the Senate version of the bill.

One would bar the use of credit cards to place bets. Consumers could wager with their debit cards and, in a worst-case scenario, empty their bank accounts. But they wouldn’t be able to rack up thousands of dollars of debt on high-interest credit cards — debt they may not be able to repay. Another provision would require bettors to acknowledge that they have made $2,500 in deposits with a digital sports betting operation before making additional deposits — ensuring a brief pause before the wagers pile up.


These are reasonable checks on what can be a dangerous habit. And when it comes to sports betting, that’s what the state should be aiming for. Something reasonable.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.