In the midst of budget shortfalls and pandemic-fueled rollbacks in services, Massachusetts lawmakers decided to eliminate sports gambling from an economic development bill sent to the governor’s desk on Wednesday. The question remains, will sports gambling legislation have a resurgence and become legal there at any point in 2021?

The answer: Not likely.

Cam Newton
New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton looks on from the sidelines as the Patriots lose to the Houston Texans 27-20 on Nov. 22. Massachusetts residents will likely have to wait at least another year before they can legally wager on the Pats in their home state. (Image: AP)

Massachusetts may soon be the only state in the region that hasn’t passed some kind of sports gambling law. New York is currently on the cusp of legalizing sports betting, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey pulled in record returns from the activity last fall.

Just over the border from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island are increasing their legal sports gambling footprints.

But Massachusetts, mired in more pressing matters, remains stalled.

Its most recent opportunity for passage of sports gambling legislation started last summer when state Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr (R) submitted a budget amendment to legalize gambling on sports.

Gambling Bill Passes House, Can’t Get Traction in State Senate

The Massachusetts House of Representatives approved the amendment as part of its economic development bill 156-3, and issued licenses for the state’s three casinos, MGM Springfield, Encore Boston Harbor, and Penn National’s Plainridge Park. Licenses were also awarded to DraftKings, and FanDuel, and will be provided to two future applicants under the House amendment. The state Senate, however, rejected the amendment without a roll call vote.

While the amendment was still under consideration, Penn National and Wynn Resorts sent a joint letter opposing online sports gambling.

Before the amendment’s removal, most lawmakers sided with the casinos in session, noting they’d opt to take online gambling off the table with a possible exception for Boston-based DraftKings.

The inability to move at all to open sports gambling, even at brick-and-mortar casinos, may have closed the window for sports betting in Massachusetts.

2021 Priorities Shift to Budgetary Shortfalls and COVID-19

The state’s 2021 legislative session, which began Wednesday, shifted priority to more pressing matters during a crisis moment, according to Senate President Karen Spilka (D).

“The focus is going to be on conference committees, resolving the budget, and COVID,” Spilka told the State House News Service this week.

In the meantime, legalizing sports betting still has bipartisan support in Massachusetts. This week, Sen. Patrick O’Connor (R) said a failure to pass sports betting legislation means Massachusetts is leaving “free money” on the table. Sen. Marc Pacheo (D) said the state is “currently losing” revenue that it’s already folded into the budget.

As Massachusetts Founders, Neighboring States Continue to Come Online

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s 2021 budget has already folded in at least $5 million in sports gambling revenue. The Democratic-controlled General Court agrees that Massachusetts, with a tech-savvy and sports-crazed base, has the potential to be one of the nation’s biggest markets.

A spokeswoman for the Baker administration said in a statement on Wednesday that “Governor Baker filed comprehensive sports betting legislation in January 2019 to make Massachusetts competitive with other states, and will carefully review the final economic development bill on his desk.”

In the meantime, other states in the region coming online this year include Maine, whose legislature legalized sports betting in 2019. However, a measure to enact regulations and go live was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills last year. In Connecticut, sports betting has bipartisan support, but the tribes that operate the state’s two casinos can’t agree on proposed regulations. Vermont is likely to advance a bill to legalize sports betting in its 2021 legislature.

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