House Panel expands and approves sports gambling bill

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The House Ways & Means Committee approved a sports betting bill on Friday that backers say would clear the way for more minority and female entrepreneurs to get a foothold in the new and fast-growing industry.

The measure, House Bill 940, has the powerful backing of House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County). A work group has been meeting regularly to discuss the issue and consider amendments.

Those amendments and the bill itself passed unanimously.

HB 940 now allows as many as 12 “Class A” sports betting licenses across Maryland, up from the original 10.

That would allow the state’s six casinos, the Maryland Jockey Club, the State Fairgrounds in Timonium, the teams that play in Maryland’s three professional football and baseball stadiums, and the Riverboat on the Potomac in Charles County all to get a license.

The committee bumped up the number of “Class B” licenses — would-be sports betting businesses that don’t quality under Class A — from five to 10.

Lawmakers also boosted the number of mobile licenses, for companies that want to accept bets on phones and other devices, from 10 to 15.

The Class B and mobile licenses would be subject to a competitive bid process administered by the state lottery commission, which would be renamed the State Lottery and Gaming Control Commission.

The commission would be under a requirement to consider any “remedial measures” that are deemed necessary to advantage minority- and women-owned businesses “to the extent permitted by state and federal law.”

Maryland is playing catch-up to neighboring states — like Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey — along with Washington, D.C. — that already allow legalized sports betting.

During its meetings, the House work group was told that an expanded pool of licenses would create a better product, through increased competition. They would also grow opportunities for women and people of color to be players in the potentially lucrative industry, gaming advocates said.

Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), the head of the Legislative Black Caucus and a member of the Ways & Means panel, said the new bill took “the lessons learned from medical cannabis,” a process that saw non-white business owners fail to secure a coveted state license.

“Nowhere in the union has a sports bill been put together like we are doing here in the state of Maryland, which gives greater opportunity for minorities to participate,” he said.

Caesar’s, the Las Vegas-based gambling conglomerate that owns Baltimore’s Horseshoe Casino, has pledged to have a minimum 25% minority ownership stake in any sports betting operation it runs.

The Washington Football Team has offered a similar commitment. The Riverboat is minority-owned.

Jones’ bill now heads to the House floor.

The Senate has its own sports betting work group, but lawmakers have yet to craft a bill.

Sen. Craig J. Zucker (D-Montgomery), who is spearheading the issue in the Senate, said on Friday that “we look forward to working collaboratively with the House.”

He said the Senate panel is “still collecting input” from people with an interest in the measure.

“We’re also keeping an eye on the clock,” he added. The legislature is set to adjourn on April 12, though lawmakers know that a COVID-19 outbreak on campus could cut their traditional 90-day session short.

The 2020 session ended three weeks early.

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