Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker Likens Sports Betting to Cannabis

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Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker Likens Sports Betting to Cannabis

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (R) says the issue of sports betting is quite similar to the state’s legalization of cannabis.

Massachusetts sports betting Charlie Baker
Massachusetts sports betting Charlie Baker
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker says the merits of legalizing sports betting mimic those that propelled the state towards ending cannabis prohibition. Massachusetts lawmakers continue to labor to send a sports betting bill to his desk. (Image: The Boston Globe)

Massachusetts is one of 19 states that has decriminalized both medicinal and recreational cannabis use. Massachusetts residents during the November 2016 election passed a ballot referendum ending cannabis prohibition in the commonwealth.

Baker, who has declined to seek a third term during this year’s Massachusetts gubernatorial, says legalizing sports betting is similar to the state bringing weed out of the underground black market into a regulated, legal environment. The Republican believes that legalizing and regulating sports gambling protects consumers, generates new tax revenue, and threatens to undermine illegal bookies and offshore operations.

Without a legal way to do this [sports betting], it’s a little bit like the marijuana issue. You just leave the black market there, and you don’t sort of bring it out of the shadows and make it part of the regular crime. I think we should do that,” Baker said recently ahead of the Boston Celtics NBA Finals tipoff against the Golden State Warriors.

Both California and Massachusetts — the home states to the NBA Finals — remain on the legal sports betting sidelines. California’s complicated gaming industry, which includes powerful tribes that run casinos, commercial cardrooms, and state and local lawmakers who have their own opinions, has resulted in legislative gridlock.

Massachusetts Compromise

Massachusetts lawmakers are hoping to avoid a similar legislative sports betting deadlock. Both chambers of the Massachusetts Legislature say the commonwealth should join the more than 30 other states that have decriminalized sports betting. Four of those states — New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire — neighbor Massachusetts.

“There are a lot of people who literally just drive out of Massachusetts so that they can bet on sports,” Baker added. “It’s happening all over the country.”

The Massachusetts House of Representatives approved its sports betting statute (House Bill 3933) nearly a year ago in July of 2021. The Senate Ways and Means Committee, however, took months to mull the bill after receiving the statute, only finally passing it to the full chamber floor last month. The Senate made considerable changes to the House version, most notably barring oddsmakers from offering lines on college sports.

The Senate additionally amended the effective tax on sports betting revenue from 12.5% to 20% on in-person bets, and from 15% to 35% online.

Convergence to Begin

With the two chambers remaining apart on sports betting, and the Massachusetts Legislature to adjourn at the end of business on July 31, a special joint committee has been formed in hopes of ironing out the differences.

Beginning tomorrow, June 9, a sports betting conference committee with representatives from the Senate and House will gather to discuss the bill’s regulatory details.

The committee’s House representation includes Reps. Jerald Parisella (D-Essex), Aaron Michlewitz (D-Suffolk), and David Muradian (R-Worcester). State Sens. Eric Lesser (D-Hampden), Patrick O’Connor (R-Weymouth), and Michael Rodrigues (D-Bristol) are representing the Senate.

The state’s three casinos — Encore Boston Harbor, MGM Springfield, and Plainridge Park — have encouraged the Senate to field the House’s wishes and include college sports betting. The gaming industry says barring collegiate wagering would be a major win for underground, illegal bookies.

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