Raimondo’s $23.5M gamble on sports betting pays off with court ruling

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – It looks like Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo’s bet on getting the U.S. Supreme Court to help balance the state budget has paid off.

In a 6-3 decision Monday, the high court ruled that states have the legal right to authorize sports betting within their borders, siding with New Jersey in a case that was closely watched across the country. The court’s five Republican-appointed justices joined Elena Kagan, an Obama appointee, in the majority opinion.

“The legalization of sports gambling requires an important policy choice, but the choice is not ours to make,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the ruling. “Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each state is free to act on its own.”

The decision vindicates a decision by Raimondo last winter to include money from sports betting in her proposed 2018-19 budget even before the justices issued their decision. The governor’s plan relies on $23.5 million in revenue from sports betting during the new fiscal year that starts July 1.

Under Raimondo’s proposal, sports betting would only be offered at Twin River’s two casinos; the governor’s aides have said that’s because it is considered casino gaming, and under the Rhode Island constitution that can only take place at voter-authorized locations. Games are supposed to be up and running by Oct. 1.

Raimondo spokesman Josh Block said Monday her aides “took proactive measures in anticipation of today’s Supreme Court decision which will allow Rhode Island to stay competitive with other states.” He praised Attorney General Peter Kilmartin for his work on the effort, and said the state is now “in the process of choosing a vendor and developing the infrastructure to begin sports betting this fall.”

Revenue Director Mark Furcolo said bids are due Friday for vendors interested in providing sports betting services.

“We’re looking for ideas and innovation on ways to make our casinos the most attractive,” Furcolo said in a interview. “It’s a competitive situation with Massachusetts and Connecticut.”

Patti Doyle, a spokeswoman for Twin River, said the company was still reviewing the decision but has spent the last several months studying how its Lincoln and soon-to-be-completed Tiverton casinos “could possibly accommodate the addition of sports betting.”

“That review has included space and staff considerations,” Doyle said. She declined to say if Twin River could make the state’s October launch target, saying the company is looking at that but also needs details on other elements of the program, “such as technology and bookmaking services.”

Democratic Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has been a strong supporter of legalizing sports betting in Rhode Island. Two Senate panels are scheduled to hold a joint hearing Tuesday on his legislation to authorize it.

“Enabling legal sports wagering in Rhode Island would provide revenue for critical state services while providing a new entertainment option for Rhode Islanders,” Ruggerio said in a statement Monday. “The state now has an opportunity to offer a legal means for Rhode Islanders to enjoy a form of entertainment in which many already engage.”

“Sports gaming also provides the state with a revenue stream that supports critical priorities, such as investing in roads and schools, without increasing the tax burden on citizens,” he added.

Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he was “pleased” about the timing of the ruling, which comes just as Rhode Island leaders begin their final round of negotiations on the budget.

“I have been on record as supporting sports betting should it be ruled legal, and that day has now come,” Mattiello said. “I look forward to finalizing the details.”

Two of Raimondo’s Republican opponents, Allan Fung and Patricia Morgan, both said they also support allowing sports betting in Rhode Island now that it’s legal. In a statement, Fung called for “a forward-looking, transparent conversation on how any state-realized revenues should be allocated.”

“Instead of plugging Raimondo’s budget holes due to her reckless spending, we should be creating dedicated lanes such as funding tax cuts and school repairs,” he said.

But another Raimondo challenger, independent Joe Trillo, said while he favors the concept of sports betting, “it poses a lot of potential problems” and should “be subject to regulations and betting maximums.” He suggested putting any revenue from sports betting into a restricted receipt account for local street repairs.

“Perhaps this will be the only way that Reservoir Avenue in Cranston can get repaved,” Trillo added, in an apparent shot at Fung. (A Fung spokesman countered that Reservoir Avenue is a state road.)

In Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters Monday he expected to begin discussing whether to legalize sports betting with lawmakers as soon as later in the day.

“I would say it’s certainly something we should look at,” Baker said. “I promise you that the vast majority of the states around the country will certainly take a look at it. And it really becomes a question of whether this is something that people believe ought to be part of their entertainment industry of not.”

The NFL has historically opposed sports betting out of concern for the “integrity” of the game. In response to the Supreme Court decision, spokesperson Brian McCarthy said the league is calling on Congress to pass a regulatory framework for gambling on sporting events.

“We also will work closely with our clubs to ensure that any state efforts that move forward in the meantime protect our fans and the integrity of our game,” McCarthy said.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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