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Proposals to expand gambling in Vermont get cool reception

Published: 1/26/2020 10:17:41 PM
Modified: 1/26/2020 10:17:26 PM

MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott’s proposals to expand gambling in Vermont by legalizing online sports betting and keno, a game similar to bingo, are drawing a mixed response from Democratic lawmakers.

Leaders in the House are signaling that they will not support the governor’s gambling proposals, which were pitched in his budget address last week as a way to raise a projected $4 million in new revenue for the state.

The governor’s endorsement of sports betting appears to be a change of heart. Two years ago, Scott said of the online game: “That’s not the answer to Vermont’s fiscal issues.”

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said her chamber has historically opposed efforts to expand the state lottery, and she is not inclined to back the proposals.

Two Democratic committee chairs in the Senate, however, already have proposed legislation that would legalize sports betting.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the sponsors of the bill, said he doubts that keno will move forward in the Legislature this year.

Sears previously supported a proposal from former lottery commissioner Greg Smith to legalize the game, which is typically played in restaurants and bars. But Sears said that the idea, which the commissioner proposed in 2013, went over like “a lead balloon” in the Statehouse. The Joint Fiscal Office found that the game would raise between $1.5 million to $3.5 million in the first three years.

“No traction whatsoever,” Sears said. “There’s a lot of anti-gambling folks in the Legislature.”

Indeed, the proposals to collect additional revenue from the state lottery have met with a cool reception in the House.

Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, chairman of the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, which writes policy governing the lottery system, said he has concerns about legalizing sports betting.

“People might as well put their wallet on the bar and hand all their money to the person who’s doing it. It’s a terrible way to raise money, and it’s a terrible thing to do to people who get addicted to it,” Stevens said.

States including New Hampshire and Pennsylvania recently have moved to legalize keno, while others including Massachusetts and New York have permitted the game since the 1990s.

The Scott administration is proposing to use the $2 million in expected annual tax revenue from keno to fund a small increase in subsidies for families seeking child care services.

Sears, who is proposing legislation to legalize sports betting with Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, the chairman of the Senate Economic Development Committee, said that many Vermonters already are placing sports bets online.

“There’s so much money going on in sports betting today that it seems to me that you know, now that states like New Hampshire entered into it, Rhode Island, that we should be doing it as well,” Sears said.

DraftKings and Fanduel, the major U.S. online sports betting operators, spent more than $84,000 each on lobbying in Vermont during the 2017-2018 biennium, according to the Secretary of State’s website. Neither company has reported any spending on lobbying since January 2019.

Rep. Tom Burditt, R-West Rutland, has proposed a bill to legalize sports betting in the House. His plan would only legalize sports betting organized by companies with a brick and mortar presence in Vermont.

“I think that doing the sports betting is a win for Vermont, but if you can also have it so that you’re gaining some jobs it’s a win-win,” he said.

He said he was glad that the governor included sports betting in his budget proposal.

“I think we’re losing out,” Burditt said. “There’s a lot of money to be made. People are going to be doing their sports betting anyway — whether it’s legal here, or not.”

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