There is no greater ally for a sports betting push than a sitting governor, and Gov. Mike DeWine this week delicately put his finger on the scale in the debate. According to the Columbus Dispatch, the Republican governor has indicated that he favors the casino regulator as the sports betting overseer.
House legislation sitting with the House Finance Committee would have the Ohio Lottery regulate the market, which, according to the plan, would allow potentially hundreds of locations across the state to offer the new form of gambling through terminals. The casinos would have Las Vegas-style sportsbooks.
Under the Senate version, the OCCC would regulate, not the lottery.
The House bill had a hearing Thursday, and it featured passionate testimony from the Bowling Centers Association of Ohio, an industry trade group. The organization told House lawmakers that it wants bowling alleys to be able to have sports betting on-site. A multitude of other types of b&m locations with existing lottery contracts also want involvement in sports wagering.
Both the House and Senate versions call for statewide online/mobile sports betting.
The stakes are high. A mature Ohio sports betting market, assuming state-of-the-art mobile adoption, could generate $7.7 billion in annual handle and more than $550 million in taxable gaming revenue, according to a 2017 study from Oxford Economics.
Why might DeWine want the OCCC as the regulator?
According to the Columbus Dispatch, DeWine met with legislative leaders this week to inform them of where he stood. The reasoning for his position hasn’t been made public.
DeWine, who was elected to the state’s top post in November, indicated support for sports wagering as a general concept last year.
“It’s coming to Ohio, whether people want it or not,” DeWine told News 5 Cleveland. “I think it’s important for Ohio to do it right. We just need to make sure it’s done so we control as much as we can.”
The key word here is “control.” It’s very possible that DeWine doesn’t like the idea of having sports betting over lottery terminals in, for example, convenience stores, bars/taverns, and bowling alleys.
DeWine’s position on mobile sports wagering isn’t known, but given his relatively progressive stance on the issue, he probably realizes that you must allow online in order to compete with the robust black market for sports wagering. In New Jersey, more than 80% of the handle comes over the internet. Without an online component, many Ohioans would still bet via offshore platforms.
Ohio State Senator John Eklund, a Republican behind the Senate version, told US Bets in February that DeWine will look at sports betting through a family-values lens.
“Our governor is, and has been throughout his career, certainly while he was [Ohio] attorney general, repeatedly made clear that one of his top, tippy-top priorities is protecting families and communities,” Eklund said. “I think he would carry that same overarching point of view into the realm of sports betting.”
Having sports betting terminals in locations frequented by minors might concern DeWine. Mobile platforms offer age protections that inexperienced b&m locations can’t. Even international casino operators with tons of experience sometimes let minors slip through the cracks at b&m casinos.
DeWine was also quoted last year, when he was the Ohio Attorney General, saying that he didn’t want to see sports betting on the ballot. That’s another facet to the debate between the House and Senate versions.
“We need to do it the right way and not let any special interests go [to] the ballot and determine how it’s going to be regulated and where the money is going to go,” DeWine told the Dispatch last year.
Ohio House lawmakers behind the version in that chamber argue that if the Ohio Lottery isn’t the regulator, legalizing sports betting could run afoul of the state constitution. Proponents of the Senate version don’t agree and argue that you can legalize and regulate under the OCCC without a referendum.
Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican, told the Dispatch this week:
“The House believes there is an unanswered question on whether the Casino Control Commission has the constitutional authority to regulate sports gaming. The House has no question that currently the Ohio Lottery Commission has that authority.”
Here’s the provision of the 2009 constitutional amendment for casinos that some say gives lawmakers in Columbus the clear green light to approve sports betting without putting it up to the voters:
5. Permit approved types of casino gaming authorized by Michigan, West Virginia, Indiana, and Pennsylvania as of Jan. 1, 2009 or games subsequently authorized by those states.
West Virginia and Pennsylvania have active sports betting industries; Indiana recently legalized it; and Michigan is considering it, though a bill hasn’t been introduced yet.
The Ohio debate is shaping up to be a complicated one, with proponents in the House and Senate not yet appearing to be willing to budge on the regulatory body for sports wagering.