Target 12

Senate president 'optimistic' online sports betting could be a swipe away next year

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A Rhode Island leader with a ton of political clout is "optimistic" that online sports betting will be on the books and potentially producing tens of millions of dollars in fresh revenue by next year.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said he will pitch a proposal early next session that is currently being crafted. 

"I'm optimistic," he said when asked if the measure could gain passage in 2019. "We have sports betting now. I don't see why we can't have mobile sports betting. It's a matter of convenience."

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello was less effusive, and more brief.

"If a bill on this issue is introduced, it will get a fair public hearing,” the Cranston Democrat said.

The measure would not require a referendum, according to Ruggerio.

Passage would make Rhode Island the first state in New England with legalized, online sports betting, and one only a few states in the country to allow it. 

Critics are concerned about other odds, pointing to stats from the Council on Problem Gambling, which pegs the number of Rhode Islanders with gambling issues at about 18,000.

Providence College Professor Patrick Kelly, who's studied problem gambling issues for the last decade, does not like the chances of making the vice available with a few swipes on the phone.

"In virtually every case that I’ve studied, it’s a tragedy. So, I’m in the tragedy prevention business," Kelly said. "If somebody can end up gambling on their phone, I think that’s a recipe for big time problems."

But there's little doubt about the revenue possibilities, according to Ruggerio and others. 

The Providence Democrat's educated guess is the state's sports betting revenue would more than double the current annual prediction, to about $50 million a year, if gamblers could wager online, anywhere in the state. 

Oxford Economics offers a potentially bigger take for Rhode Island in a report released in May of last year

If online sports betting is legalized, in a "High Tax Rate Scenario," the study predicts the handle - as in the amount bet on sports - would reach more than $1.1 billion a year, with the state collecting just under $80 million in revenue.

The state's take is 51 percent of the losses, Ruggerio said. 

"That's a good deal for taxpayers," he said. "And additional revenue would help our programs. Fix our roads, our schools."

The rich predictions are believable if you consider the long lines, estimated at about 90 minutes by one eyewitness as recently as Sunday at Twin River in Lincoln, one of two locations in the state where you can bet on sports.  

But Kelly is highly critical of the miniscule amount the state spends to help problem gamblers.

Ruggerio's spokesperson said the state allocates $125,000 for problem gambling programs - a fraction of 1 percent of the amount of revenue currently collected from Rhode Island's various gambling ventures. 

"That's too low," Kelly said.  "If you permit [problem gamblers] to gamble from their living room, the profiles of people who have ended up in bad situations with a focus on people who have stolen from their workplace."

Ruggerio said he would consider exploring a bigger cut to combat social issues, "if necessary."

"We would have to look at it and see what the problem is," Ruggerio said. "I'm always concerned about the social aspect."

But he added that gamblers with and without issues are currently betting on sports illegally, anywhere in the state.

"With the bookies, yes, 97 percent of betting now is illegal," Ruggerio added. "I'm not overly worried [about social issues] because like I said, I think you have that going on without the state involvement. We're not getting any revenue from that now." 

Kelly believes the state should spend about 24 times as much as it is spending now to combat problem gambling. 

"The national Council on Problem Gambling recommends 1% of revenues to go to problem gambling prevention and treatment programs," Kelly said.

That would equal about $3 million, compared to the current $125,000.

"Only two states meet that goal," Kelly said. "RI should be another one."

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.


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