Sports betting bill advances in state capitol

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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - The House’s criminal justice committee approved a bill Tuesday, May 21, that would allow voters to decide whether sports betting will be legal in their parishes during the October election. Most revenue from any expansion would be dedicated to early childhood education.

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Betting would only be legalized inside Louisiana’s casinos, on riverboats, and on racetracks. The bill would not allow for mobile betting, except on the gaming floor of those 20 locations. Gamblers would have to be at least 21-years-old and could only bet on college and professional sports.

Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, has consistently acknowledged his bill is an expansion of legal gaming, but contends the illegal practice is already common through black market bookies.

“State Police has told me that there are at least 100 sites where you can go on your phone right now and bet offshore on anything you want to bet,” Martiny said. "I’ve seen people in this building bet on horse racing on their phone. It’s here.”

Still, lawmakers argued that approving sports betting could ensnare susceptible Louisianans in a cycle of addiction and bankruptcy.

Committee Chair Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, questioned whether the bill might damage the “integrity of the game,” fearing the bill would lead athletes to throw sporting events in exchange for a share of someone else’s winnings.

“It destroys families,” Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, said. “It’s an addiction. What we legalize, we legitimize."

Martiny retorted that because people are betting on sports in other states or illegally, Louisiana currently gets all of the potential problems associated with gaming expansion and none of the revenue benefits that might come with the legalization of the practice.

“This is to allow our casinos in this area to compete on an even basis with those on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the Indian casinos, and the racetracks in Arkansas," Martiny said. "All of those things that you talk about, that people can bet on right now, you know how we deal with it? We have nothing. We don’t regulate it.”

A similar concept failed in the legislature in 2018 before the U.S. Supreme Court essentially deemed sports betting legal. To make the idea more palatable in the 2019 session, Martiny’s bill would dedicate most of the sports betting revenue to early childhood education.

"This is not a good way to finance education, but unfortunately, we have not come up with any other good ways to do what we want to do,” Martiny said. He said his bill could “realistically” bring in as much as $45 million each year.

Up to $750,000 of the revenue would go to gambling addiction therapy and prevention programs.

The bill was almost amended so sports betting would be allowed anywhere there’s a video poker machine, raising the number of allowable venues from 20 to 2,800. Some members who oppose gaming expansion voted for the increase, which would have made the final bill much harder to pass. After a round of parliamentary procedures, that amendment was eventually rejected.

The bill now heads to the House floor for full debate, although it could be redirected to the House’s appropriations committee before it’s finally approved because it does contain a spending element.

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