DULUTH — An opportunity to be seized — a sure bet, really, with Minnesota taxpayers the ones who would cash in — appears on its way to being missed once again in St. Paul.
A bill to legalize sports betting made progress in 2019; it passed a Senate committee after a similar measure didn't even get a hearing the year before. In 2020, the reintroduced bill was derailed along with pretty much everything else by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This session of the Minnesota Legislature, it’s back one more time, and Gov. Tim Walz has even said he’d be open to discussing it, according to Minnesota Public Radio. (He’d prefer lawmakers consider legalizing cannabis instead, he said, as it also could generate revenue while addressing racial disparities.)
Disappointingly, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said sports betting is unlikely to reach the finish line again this session — with COVID-19 one more time to be blamed, due to the difficulties it poses in conducting business. Also, lawmakers need to be focused on passing a new two-year state budget, he said.
Another obstacle remains, too: “The state's politically potent tribes oppose it,” as the Associated Press reported in 2019. The tribes operate 21 casinos in Minnesota and are understandably concerned about their monopoly. The tribes also have given millions in campaign donations, as the AP report pointed out.
Encouragingly, state leaders have met extensively with the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association in apparent recognition that both sides stand to gain from legalized sports betting. There definitely is common ground. Federal law requires tribes be allowed to offer the same gambling in their casinos as would be offered off-reservation. This year’s bill specifically designates on-site wagering at casinos and racetracks and, after a year, remote sports betting through those same sites.
“(Sports betting is) already done flagrantly, and it’s time to shine some light on it, put some guardrails around it, protections around it,” DFL Sen. Karla Bigham of Cottage Grove, the Senate sponsor of the legislation this year, said in the January MPR story. “Quite honestly, we need to legalize it.”
The door was opened for Minnesota and other states to join Nevada in offering legal sports betting in 2018 via a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Bets would be allowed on professional and college games and even on plays within games. Many Minnesotans have been eager to start wagering with their smartphones.
Following the Supreme Court decision, 20 states and Washington, D.C., have jumped into sports betting, seizing on its promise of tax riches. That includes Iowa, where parking lots at wagering points near its northern border fill up with Minnesota plates on NFL game days. Another six states are expected to get in on the action this year, including another Minnesota neighbor, South Dakota. Yet another neighbor, North Dakota, is among 14 states listed as likely to legalize sports betting by 2023 by the betting site, Action Network.
Minnesota is being left behind in legitimizing what's now a widespread practice. Americans illegally wager about $150 billion a year on sports, the American Gaming Association estimated in 2019. If made legal here, Minnesotans would legally wager an estimated $2 billion a year on sports, according to the association. Even just a 5% tax on that would raise $100 million annually for the state. Think of all the crumbling bridges that could be fixed, textbooks purchased, and snowy highways plowed with such a tax windfall. The bill currently under consideration in St. Paul would tax on-site bets at 6% and remotely made wagers at 8%.
Minnesota lawmakers and others in the state owe it to us taxpayers to embrace this attractive new funding source.
Additionally, they would be protecting Minnesotans now at risk of scams and unscrupulous practices with sports betting in the shadows of illegitimacy rather than in the bright light of lawful behavior. Legalization would bring regulations to benefit and protect consumers, the safeguards applied also to advertising, the same way tobacco and alcohol ads are regulated — and for similar reasons.
With legalization, the state additionally and responsibly could designate a cut of revenues for programs to address gambling addiction and to help Minnesotans through other resultant social and health woes. Inadequate funds from the state are allocated to such causes now.
And that's not unlike the inadequate action in St. Paul during yet another legislative session. A sure bet is being squandered and missed.
As Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, the House sponsor of this session’s bill, said, according to MPR: “This is something that people are ready to see happen. They are sick of driving to Iowa … or using off-shore sports books.”
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.