The Senate passed the bill 17-2 without a committee hearing, suspending its rules before voting. The decision came on the first day back in session after hours of closed-door negotiations.
‘I’m pleased they acted so quickly,’ said Markell, who fought to resurrect the bill after an initial House defeat last Tuesday. Markell and other administration officials negotiated for hours last Thursday with House Republican leaders who had led early opposition to the measure and were finally able to reach a compromise.
Because of a brief unsuccessful experiment with a sports lottery in the 1970s, Delaware is one of only four states, along with Nevada, Montana and Oregon, exempted from a 1992 federal law banning sports gambling. As the only state east of the Mississippi River that can offer sports betting, Delaware has a distinct edge against slot machine competition in neighboring states.
Markell is expected to sign the bill this week, even as the administration awaits state Supreme Court action on its request for an advisory opinion on the constitutionality of the proposed sports betting lottery.
The court initially rejected Markell’s request as premature because a bill had not actually passed the General Assembly. But it agreed to maintain the schedule it set for court-appointed attorneys to submit briefs for and against the plan, with a possibility of hearing oral arguments next week.
The proposed sports lottery and the money it would bring are key to Markell’s plan to address a projected shortfall of more than $600 million for the coming fiscal year.
Nonetheless, sports betting could face a legal challenge by professional sports leagues.
The NFL and other professional sports leagues, as well as the NCAA, remain opposed to any sports betting in Delaware, saying it would tarnish the image of athletics and lure young people into gambling.
‘We expect that everyone involved in the administration of sports leagues – professional and college – will review today’s action and evaluate its impact as other decisions are made by Delaware officials and the Delaware Supreme Court,’ National Football League spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement.
The bill calls for the state lottery director to develop rules for a lottery allowing people 21 and older to wager on athletic events, except collegiate or amateur events involving a Delaware team. Sports betting would be allowed only at the state’s three existing slot machine casinos, which have a state-granted monopoly on gambling in Delaware and have pushed for sports betting for years. They nevertheless lobbied heavily against Markell’s proposal because it calls for the state to take a larger share of casino revenue.
In response, Markell quickly backed off his initial proposal, which would have authorized up to three more slot-machine and sports betting casinos, and sports betting at up to 10 non-casino venues, such as sports bars.
In the compromise struck last week, the administration agreed to reduce the increased percentage of casino revenue going to the state, set the annual licensing fee to be paid by the three casinos for sports betting at $4 million instead of $4.5 million, and to work with the casinos on introducing table games as soon as possible.
Even with the changes, Markell has said the legislation should bring in at least $52 million in the fiscal year starting July 1, close to the $55 million expected from the previous proposal.
‘I think it’s going to be an unbelievable cash cow,’ said Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover. ‘We’re the only ones on the East Coast, and there’s a huge underground economy that no one’s been able to measure.’
But Bonini, who favors cutting spending instead of raising revenue, voted against the bill because he believes the money generated would lead to a more bloated state government.