With less than two weeks left in the legislative session, lawmakers in Massachusetts are running out of time to resolve their differences on tax rates and whether to allow wagering on college sports.
The six-member Sports Wagering Conference Committee has been in negotiations for several weeks to try to settle differences between the House and Senate versions of a bill to regulate online and retail sports wagering. Among a range of difference, the House version of the bill allows for college sports betting, while all wagers on college games would be prohibited in the Senate version.
The proposed tax rates are also different, with the Senate proposal setting a 35 percent tax on mobile wagering, while the House is seeking a 15 percent tax rate.
On Monday (July 18), WGBH radio in Boston reported that the committee remains at odds over those two key issues.
House Speaker Ronald Mariano, a Democrat, told reporters that both sides would have to be willing to move to get a deal done. Mariano said he did not know how much either side had moved up to this point.
“There are a lot of concerns that we as a commission are going to have to address if and when we get sports betting,” said Bradford Hill, a commissioner with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC). “The legislators and regulators have to work together.”
Messages left with Representative Jerry Parisella, a Democrat and member of the conference committee, seeking an update on the negotiations were not returned Wednesday (July 20).
Two weeks ago, Parisella told attendees of the National Counsel of Legislators from Gaming States (NCLGS) conference in Boston that committee members were doing what they could to reach an agreement by the end of the session on July 31.
“We are doing it already,” Parisella said. “So let’s get a legal, regulated [sports-betting] market. Hopefully, we can get it done by the time the session ends.”
Should lawmakers fail to reach an agreement by the end of the month, a brand new sports-betting bill would have to be reintroduced for consideration in 2023.
Bay State Gaming Fines, Penalties
Although most of the attention is focused on the negotiations taking place on Beacon Hill, state gaming regulators have approved a policy change regarding the assessment of fines and expressed concern over a proposal to allow video gaming terminals (VGTs) in bars and taverns.
The MGC unanimously approved a draft policy last week describing the Investigations and Enforcement Bureau’s process of issuing fines to casino operators and other gaming licensees for repeated instances of noncompliance.
Heather Hall, chief enforcement counsel, said the draft policy was created after commissioners in April questioned the process of assessing fines and how the agency essentially addresses noncompliance.
“The overall objective of the IEB’s monitoring and enforcement function is compliance,” Hall said.
Hall said before the IEB considers issuing a fine they assess the seriousness of the violation, the potential impact on the integrity of gaming and public safety, as well as the number and degree of prior instances of noncompliance.
At its April 28 meeting, the commission reviewed and discussed the IEB’s process for assessing penalties and fines, with the IEB making an addition to its draft policy afterwards when asked if it had issued a fine that was lower than the amount it had previously issued.
Commissioner Eileen O’Brien had questioned why MGM Springfield was fined $100,000 in May 2019 for “repeated noncompliance” in keeping underage visitors from gambling or drinking on the casino floor but was fined only $18,000 for three similar violations in March 2021.
Hall said the initial fine was to address a systematic problem of continued noncompliance over a period of approximately eight months, while there were far fewer instances leading up to the 2021 fine.
She said there had been 50 instances leading up to the fine in 2019 but following the complaint MGM Springfield had taken steps to address underage people on the gaming floor.
“We continue to see these issues with underage people accessing the gaming floor,” Hall said. “We will continue to work through these issues with the licensees and take appropriate enforcement action.”
Hill also noted in his legislative update on July 12 that House Bill 4978 had been introduced earlier in the month by the House Committee on Ways and Means that would give additional benefits to veterans and their families.
Hill said the bill would allow veterans' organizations in Massachusetts to offer up to three slot machines within their establishments, and all the revenue would go to a dedicated non-profit in their area. As of Wednesday, the bill had been amended twice and replaced by Senate Bill 2559 before being placed into a conference committee.
“I know that in the past this has been offered in the Senate and it has been rejected,” Hill said. “I don’t know how they feel about it now. We would be the agency to oversee it.”
Hill told his colleagues that he was optimistic that this is “something … we are ready for and could address should that language make its way through the legislature.”