Massachusetts Senate Finally Approves Sports Betting Bill, but Challenges Remain

  • Senate approved SB 2844 via voice vote after nearly seven hours of discussion
  • Bill bans college sports betting, sets respective retail, digital tax rates of 20%, 35%
  • SB 2844 and HB 3977 now go into conference committee to iron out differences
  • Hope is the committee will align on a lower tax rate and betting on some collegiate sports
  • Goal is to hash out a compromise bill before the state’s lawmaking session ends July 31
Massachusetts State House
After seven hours of discussion in State House (pictured) on Thursday, the Massachusetts Senate finally passed sports betting bill SB 2844, allowing legal retail and online sports wagering in the state. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Years of talking and pressure

After years of talking and pressure, the most formidable levee holding back legal sports betting from Massachusetts has finally broken.

Senate voted to approve a sports betting bill for the first time

On Thursday, the Massachusetts Senate voted to approve a sports betting bill for the first time. After nearly seven hours of discussion — with lawmakers introducing 40 amendments — SB 2844 got passed via voice vote, allowing the state’s six casinos to offer retail and online sports betting.

Key takeaways from the bill include a ban on college sports betting, retail and digital tax rates of 20% and 35%, respectively, and severe guidelines aimed at advertising.

While a significant breakthrough, SB 2844 isn’t winding its way to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk just yet. Instead, it has to first make a detour and make nice with the House’s sports betting bill, HB 3977, which passed last summer.

Both bills will next go into the conference committee, which will attempt to reconcile the key differences between the pair.

Battle of bills

Some in the gaming industry are openly wondering whether the conference committee means the slow death of the state’s legal sports betting market. Ryan Linnehan, a regulatory writer and editor for XLMedia, posed the big question of compromise via Twitter:

The reason for concern is that SB 2844 and HB 3977 differ in many significant ways. The Senate’s bill prohibits on betting on collegiate sports and comes with a whistle-to-whistle ban on sports wagering advertisements during live sports broadcasts. It also has much higher tax rates compared to the House-approved measure of 12.5% for retail wagering and 15% on digital.

Hope remains that the conference committee will align on a more conventional model with a lower tax rate, wagering on at least some collegiate sports, and softening of advertising restrictions one senator labeled “impractical” and potentially “unconstitutional.”

July 31 target

According to the State House News Service, however, House and Senate could appoint a conference committee “as early as next week” to reconcile both bills. The goal is to hash out a compromise bill before the current Massachusetts General Court session ends on July 31.

Governor Baker, who filed his own sports betting bill way back in January 2019, knows all too well the challenges that lie ahead. “There are always differences on complicated pieces of legislation between the House and the Senate,” he said on Thursday.

get something to our desk that we can sign by the end of the session”

“My hope would be that they would both work to get something to our desk that we can sign by the end of the session.”