Maryland sports gambling referendum enjoys public support, but questions remain

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Two weeks before election day, backers of legalized sports gambling in Maryland appear to be cruising toward an easy victory.

Their campaign to build public support for Question 2, the latest statewide gaming referendum, is flush with cash and well organized. It is outpolling opposition by almost two-to-one. And, as of Monday, it has the backing of the state’s popular governor.

While there will almost certainly be hundreds of thousands of votes against legalizing sports wagering, political insiders believe a majority will vote in favor of it.

“For the most part, people already understand that gaming is in Maryland, and when they see it, I think people will most likely be inclined to support it,” said Sen. Craig Zucker (D-Montgomery), who sponsored a sports gambling bill earlier this year. “Especially since the money will be going to education.”

An Annapolis lobbyist who represents a high-stakes client noted that Marylanders approved slot machine gambling in 2008 and table games in 2012.

“Sports betting is just another extension. People that have voted for it in the past will continue to vote (for it),” he said. “It’s been done always in a presidential election year, so the turnout is higher.”

A poll conducted in late September by Our Voice Maryland, a progressive nonprofit organization, found that 52% of likely voters supported Question 2, while 29% opposed it. Nearly one in five voters said they needed more information.

Question 2 only asks voters if they approve of sports and event wagering in general. It does not specify where it would be allowed. Those details would need to be hashed out by the General Assembly, which is expected to do a deep dive into the issue in January, when lawmakers reconvene in Annapolis.

A bill that sailed through the state Senate in March died in the House of Delegates at the end of session over a policy disagreement. It would have allowed sports wagering at Maryland’s casinos, race tracks, the Washington Football Team’s stadium in Landover and at the state fairgrounds in Timonium. Marylanders would also have been allowed to gamble on approved apps.

But all those particulars vanished when the House refused to accept the Senate bill, and backers quickly amended the bill to an up-or-down referendum to avoid leaving Annapolis empty-handed.

Zucker called his bill — Senate Bill 4, which passed his chamber unanimously — “a pretty good roadmap that we can work from.” Others believe the legislature will start from scratch.

The state’s casinos, horse tracks, professional sports teams and others are well-represented by a whos-who of the state capital’s top lobbyists.

Among the issues to be resolved next legislative session: will gambling-by-app be allowed, will betting on college athletics be permitted, and what sort of “event” wagering ― the Oscars? the finale of The Bachelor? the 2022 race for governor? ― should be made legal.

Sports betting is legal in 18 states and Washington, D.C., and four other states have approved gambling legislation, according to axios.com. It’s being actively considered in nine other states, Maryland among them.

All of Maryland’s neighbors have okayed it.

With technology advancing rapidly, Senate Majority Leader Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) said she hopes whatever bill lawmakers approve is able to keep pace.

“We’re already behind as far as technology and what the possibilities are with sports betting,” she said. “I’m just hoping that whatever legislation we come up with, that we’re making the most current, up-to-date decision.”

The two dominant sports wagering companies — DraftKings and FanDuel — have pumped $2.75 million into Vote Yes on 2, the campaign to boost public support for Maryland’s referendum.

According to a campaign finance report filed last week, the committee has spent most of its money on radio and television advertising and direct mail.

The campaign released its second ad on Monday. Like the first one they released, it deals almost entirely with the benefits of expanded funding for education — and makes scant reference to gambling.

“It is intentional. They want to hide what the referendum really does and talk about school funding,” said Del. Neil Parrott (R-Washington), an opponent of Question 2. “I think the promoters of that campaign realize that it’s not a very popular position to take.”

Parrott, who is also the GOP nominee in the 6th District U.S. House race, is skeptical that sports gambling proceeds will expand Maryland’s educational budget and he said he is worried about the impact of gambling losses on families.

When Washington Football Team owner Daniel M. Snyder traveled to Annapolis earlier this year to meet with state lawmakers, he sketched out a vision of a large new mixed-use development — including a new stadium — if Maryland allows him to offer on-site wagering.

The Ravens and Orioles were left out of Senate Bill 4, though King said she believes the owners of both franchises will want to be included in any new legislation that gets approved.

Hogan’s statement of support on Monday suggested he will embrace any bill they pass.

“Question 2 provides a critical revenue source for public education without raising taxes on families and businesses,” he said. “…We are already funding our K-12 schools at record levels, and this is another way to ensure that is the case for years to come.”

In an interview with NBC Sports Washington, Hogan said the economic downturn makes sports wagering more appealing. “Right now, as states are really lacking revenue, it’s another potential source of revenue, and it’s much more likely I think to happen.”

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