Maryland Senate passes bill to take gambling out of the state constitution

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Hoping to make it less cumbersome to adopt changes to Maryland’s gambling laws, the Senate approved legislation on Tuesday to take gaming provisions out of the state’s constitution. The vote was 46-1.

The move would reverse a key component of the legislation the General Assembly approved more than a decade ago.

When the legislature legalized casinos during a special session in 2007, it included a requirement that any subsequent expansion or alteration to the state’s gambling laws be approved by voters at referendum.

The idea was to assure the public that they would have a say on such matters going forward.

Senate Bill 325 proposes a constitutional amendment that restores the legislature’s power to approve gambling measures. It passed with minimal debate.

The primary sponsor is Senate Majority Leader Nancy J. King, D-Montgomery, and 19 other senators — including many of the chamber’s leaders — have signed on as co-sponsors.

A similar measure, HB 605, has been introduced in the House of Delegates. The Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on that bill on Thursday.

If the measures become law, as expected, voters could face two gambling-related referendum questions on the ballot this November.

In addition to the King bill, lawmakers are expected to consider a measure to legalize sports betting, Senate Bill 4.

The Senate Budget and Taxation committee held a hearing on that bill late last month but has yet to vote on it.

Under that proposal, sponsored by Sen. Craig J. Zucker, D-Montgomery, the state would be authorized to issue sports wagering licenses in exchange for a $2.5 million upfront payment and $250,000 annually.

Eighty percent of the proceeds from sports wagering would go to the sportsbook. The remainder would go to the state’s Education Trust Fund.

Backers of the measure are expected to argue that Maryland should join the growing list of states that allow sports gambling so the revenue generated by the activity can be used to fund the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission, which has proposed billions of dollars in additional spending on K-12 education.

Sports gambling is projected the net the state about $21 million per year.

In an interview Tuesday, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said he “would be willing to take a look at” a sports gambling bill. But, he noted that the projected revenues from betting would barely make a dent in what the state will need to fund Kirwan.

“We’re going to need a lot more than sports gambling,” he said.

Most of the state’s casino operators, racing interests and professional sports team owners have hired lobbyists in an effort to push sports gambling across the finish line — as have prominent national online gambling sites.

In addition to professional sports, bettors would be able to place wagers on college sports, Olympic events, certain esports competitions and auto racing. Betting on high school sports would remain illegal.

Since the Supreme Court struck down the Professional Amateur Sports Protection Act in 2018, several states and D.C. have approved legislation allowing sports gambling — including neighboring Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Most of them have operations up and running; others are expected to be in operation in the next six months.

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