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Beacon Hill lawmakers drag their feet on sports betting

Gamblers and others gathered in January in a sports book bar at Twin River Casino in Rhode Island, where sports gambling is legal.
Gamblers and others gathered in January in a sports book bar at Twin River Casino in Rhode Island, where sports gambling is legal. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

The state Legislature is unlikely to decide whether to legalize sports betting in Massachusetts before the fall, two key lawmakers said Thursday. That means another football season will begin without any legal wagers here, and the state will likely leave millions in revenue on the table.

The debate over gambling expansion on Beacon Hill has slowed to a crawl in the year since a US Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for states to legalize wagers on athletic contests, despite an initial burst of enthusiasm that Massachusetts would be among the first to act.

In the meantime, a dozen states, including Rhode Island, have moved to join Nevada in authorizing sports bets. Industry players, including sports leagues, casinos, and online gaming companies, have backed some form of legalization here. And Governor Charlie Baker has put his weight behind the push, proposing legislation in January that he said would generate some $35 million in taxes and licensing fees in the coming fiscal year.

But lawmakers say there’s still plenty of work to be done to decide how to structure the new market, who will benefit, and whether legalization is a good idea at all.

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“We’re going to be diligent and thorough and take our time. The state has a relatively healthy budget this year, so we want to make sure that we have the best and most thought-out proposal,” said state Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who is cochairman of the committee overseeing the sports betting debate.

The committee is set to hold hearings this month on sports betting. The proceedings will be a step toward determining the fate of sports betting, though the timing leaves little room for lawmakers to take further steps on any proposal before they depart for the summer.

The debate will carry on even as the state prepares for the high-stakes opening of the Encore Boston Harbor casino in Everett. The casino has said it supports the introduction of regulated sports betting as it seeks to draw in customers in a sports-obsessed city.

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Even New Hampshire, which has been debating gambling for years, looks to be outpacing Massachusetts, as lawmakers there enter the final stages of debate on a sports betting measure. Rhode Island is preparing to expand the limited program it has been running for six months.

Supporters of expanded gambling argue that people are already placing bets here through black market bookies and offshore websites. And the introduction of sports betting in Rhode Island has attracted many customers from Massachusetts.

Baker, a Republican, proposed a measure in January that would allow people in Massachusetts to bet on professional games at casinos or on their smartphones, a plan that would open up the industry to companies such as DraftKings, the Boston tech firm that made its name in paid daily fantasy sports contests. The Legislature has also postponed deciding whether to tax fantasy sports, which could generate some $2 million per year.

In February, Rhode Island’s sports books lost money as New England Patriots fans cashed in on Super Bowl bets.
In February, Rhode Island’s sports books lost money as New England Patriots fans cashed in on Super Bowl bets.(Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File)

On Thursday, a Baker spokesman said the governor “continues to encourage the Legislature to pass his bill quickly in order to maximize the benefit for cities and towns.”

But lawmakers say there is no reason to rush. Neither the House nor the Senate has included money from sports betting in its budget proposal for the year.

At a panel discussion hosted Thursday by State House News Service, Lesser and Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, who is also cochair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, said they remain undecided about sports betting.

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If it moves forward with legalization, the Legislature will have to decide who gets to operate sports betting franchises, which would mean picking winners among influential groups, including casinos, tech firms like DraftKings, the state lottery, and the horse racing industry. Sports leagues and teams also are pushing for some economic benefit from the industry.

Ferrante, a Gloucester Democrat, said any law will have to take into account both the existing casino industry and the tech companies that see sports betting as an area for growth. The question, she said, is “how do we manage those pieces and weave together a proposal that’s balanced, makes sense, and protects all of those interests?”

The Legislature will also likely consider how to address concerns over the potential for match fixing, and how to prevent and treat problem gambling.

The tangle of competing priorities may help explain why Massachusetts is moving at a deliberate pace, according to Daniel Wallach, an attorney who is cofounder of the University of New Hampshire’s Sports Wagering and Integrity Program.

He said some other states have been able to move quickly because they have fewer interests to contend with. But Wallach noted that Massachusetts does not have to contend with constitutional barriers or compacts with Native American tribes, which have slowed measures in New York and Connecticut.

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“The most important thing is that it’s still alive. A number of different bills were filed, it has the support of Governor Baker, and now it’s entering a crucial phase of the legislative process,” Wallach said. He said he would be “somewhat shocked” if sports betting isn’t up and running in Massachusetts before next year’s Super Bowl.

Still, DraftKings and other proponents of sports betting are stepping up pressure on the state to move quickly, using this week’s one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision as fodder.

“One year ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it’s up to the individual states, like Massachusetts, to legalize sports betting. But your lawmakers still have not acted to allow mobile sports betting in MA,” DraftKings wrote in a message to customers on Tuesday, urging recipients to contact their representatives.

Rhode Island, the first mover in the region, introduced sports betting late last year with a limited program confined to the state’s casinos. But it will soon allow mobile betting across the state amid disappointing early revenue figures. In February, the state’s sports books actually lost money as New England Patriots fans cashed in on Super Bowl bets.

Some Massachusetts lawmakers who favor legalization say they’re not worried about the wait.

“I do think we have an advantage, having waited the year to see how other states have been successful and not so successful,” said state Senator Brendan P. Crighton, a Lynn Democrat who has proposed a measure similar to Baker’s. “The world’s not going to end if we don’t get it ready by football season. . . . We want to get this right.”

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Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com.