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Watson May Push For Maryland Online Casino Referendum, Leave Details For Next Year

Written By Matthew Kredell on March 19, 2024
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Maryland Sen. Ron Watson holds out hope for convincing colleagues to pass the online casino legislation sent over by the House, but he admits that doesn’t appear likely.

So Watson is working on an alternate plan that could cut the delay from legislative inaction from years to mere months.

If the Senate isn’t ready to pass Maryland online casino legislation this year, legislators could still let voters decide on if they want it legalized.

“I hope at minimum to pass a referendum and put this to voters,” Watson said. “Because if we don’t do a referendum this year, we have to wait until 2026.”

The Senate could strip HB1319, the detailed Maryland online casino bill passed by the House on Saturday, of everything but the language to put a constitutional amendment allowing the activity on the ballot in November.

That way, instead of waiting until the next general election in November 2026, Maryland lawmakers can come back next year and work out the details for Maryland online casino implementation mere months after the 2024 election takes place.

Following the Maryland sports betting path

This two-step process for expanding gaming options in Maryland worked once before.

In 2020, Maryland lawmakers couldn’t agree on the details for sports betting regulation but put the legalization question in front of voters.

After Maryland voters approved sports betting with 67% support in November 2020, lawmakers returned the next year and finished the sports betting implementation language.

However, Watson isn’t confident he can convince colleagues in the next three weeks to approve the Maryland online casino referendum. Maryland’s legislative session ends April 8.

“It’s possible, but in my preliminary discussions it didn’t seem probable at this time. Once the bill is heard and we have this dynamic between the Senate and House, anything can happen.”

Why Senate isn’t behind Maryland online casino

Maryland online casino got plenty of support in the House, passing 92-43.

Senate leadership assigned HB1319 to the Budget and Taxation Committee, which previously held a hearing on Watson’s bills.

Watson doesn’t serve on the committee, which is chaired by Sen. Guy Guzzone. But it isn’t a good sign that the committee has yet to advance his online casino legislation over the past two years.

“I have no idea what the Budget and Taxation Committee will do with the House bill, but my general sense is the Senate passed a balanced budget without any tax increase and is very reluctant to move forward with iGaming because of concerns about problem gaming and cannibalization.”

When the committee heard Watson’s SB603 and SB565 in February, many union casino workers and representatives from two of Maryland’s six casinos opposed legalizing iGaming, saying it would hurt land-based casino revenue and cost jobs. Watson argued against those claims, but they did their damage with his colleagues.

“I’ve told colleagues, as did Del. [Vanessa] Atterbeary in the House, that there haven’t been any proven cases of cannibalization in any state that has iGaming. Unfortunately, Maryland Live! is saying there is cannibalization and job loss when the fact is that they offer online casino in Pennsylvania and are looking to hire more workers at Philadelphia Live!”

Maryland Senators affected by the cannibalization arguments may find it more palatable simply to see if voters want online casino this year.

Watson wants Senate to look ahead

Although the House included Maryland online casino revenue in its budget proposal, the chamber didn’t necessarily pass the iCasino bill with revenue for next year in mind. Atterbeary, who championed the bill, is thinking about 2028.

That’s when the state will need a new means to fund the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Fund.

“The House is being proactive in saying we need to take action now because, even though we have a balanced budget, this fiscal need exists and we need to start capturing that revenue today,” Watson said. “The Senate recognizes the fiscal challenges ahead but believes we’ve passed a balanced budget and can revisit this next year.”

Watson doesn’t think that is good enough. If the Senate punts on the issue this year and doesn’t put it in front of voters until November 2026, Maryland online casino won’t begin until 2027 at the earliest. The complicated licensing structure could push the launch back even further, as it did with sports betting.

Legislators are projecting $300 million in annual revenue from online casino at market maturity. But that won’t happen by 2028 if it doesn’t get on the ballot until 2026.

By getting voter approval this year, legislators can work out the details next year and have Maryland online casino humming in time to generate the funds that the Blueprint needs in 2028 and beyond.

“I think the Senate is missing the boat in terms of not considering the time frame to implement this,” Watson said. “You can’t pass iGaming and the next day collect $300 million. The reason I want to do it this year is to establish the market, allow the market to mature, and by 2028 we should be able to see that full $300 million revenue stream.”

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Matthew Kredell

Matthew Kredell serves as senior lead writer of legislative affairs involving online gambling at PlayUSA. He began covering efforts to legalize and regulate online gambling in 2007 after federal passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act disrupted his hobby of playing small-stakes online poker. He has since interviewed more than 300 lawmakers around the country and written extensively about online gambling legislation. He has led coverage of bills to legalize online gambling in most states. A lifelong Angeleno and USC journalism alum, Matthew started his career working as a sportswriter for a decade at the Los Angeles Daily News. He has written on a variety of topics for Playboy Magazine, Men’s Journal, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly and ESPN.com.

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