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Gambling Ballot Initiatives Earn Clean Sweep On Election Day

by Steve Schult |  Published: Dec 16, 2020

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During this past election cycle, most of the attention was understandably focused on the presidential race. But gamblers in six states have something to celebrate as every gaming-related ballot initiative was passed easily.

Colorado, Nebraska, Virginia, Louisiana, Maryland, and South Dakota all passed resolutions that expanded gambling in their state. Nebraska and Virginia will now begin to break ground on brick-and-mortar casinos. Colorado will be able to raise the $100 max bet, while Louisiana, Maryland, and South Dakota legalized sports betting.

“With their affirmative votes, Americans welcomed gaming’s world-class entertainment to their communities along with our new jobs and vital state and local tax revenue,” said American Gaming Association President and CEO Bill Miller in a press release. “Some form of legal gaming is currently authorized in 44 states, and 45 percent of American adults live in states that provide safeguards of a legal, regulated sports betting market.”

Nebraska

Of all the states, Nebraska had the bumpiest road to victory, despite voters saying “Yes” to casinos by a comfortable 2-to-1 margin.

Last summer, a pro-gambling group collected 475,000 signatures to get the issue on the ballot. The group, Keep the Money in Nebraska, argued that Nebraskans were simply heading across the border to casinos in neighboring states to spend their money. By bringing brick-and-mortar casinos to the Cornhusker State, the local and state governments would reap the benefit of tax revenue, while gamblers no longer have to cross state lines.

The group collected signatures for three petitions. One that would amend the state constitution to allow casino gambling, another to change state laws to allow the government to regulate the market, and a third that allocated tax revenue to the government.

The nearly half million signatures was more than enough to get the issue on the ballot, but in August, Nebraska Secretary of State Robert B. Evnen said that those issues would not be placed on the ballot in November. He argued that the three initiatives “fail to comply with the single subject rule in the Nebraska Constitution and are confusing.”
Keep the Money in Nebraska reached out to Lincoln-based attorney Andre Barry, who filed a request with the Nebraska Supreme Court to review the decision and possibly force Evnen to put the issues on the ballot.

In September, just a few days before the deadline to file ballot initiatives, the court heard the case and ruled against Evnen’s unilateral decision. The initiatives were put on the ballot and eventually passed by residents of the state.

Casinos will be permitted at existing Nebraska horse racing tracks. They are expected to be built at tracks in Lincoln, Omaha, Grand Island, Columbus, Sioux City, and Hastings. If a new track is built in the future, that site may build a casino as well.

Virginia

Of the six states that passed gambling expansion, Virginia’s initiatives were the only ones that weren’t statewide. Last April, legislation was passed that gave five cities permission to vote on whether to bring casinos to their locales. The bill granted residents of Danville, Bristol, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Richmond the right to decide whether casinos should be in their city.

Danville, Bristol, Norfolk, and Portsmouth all voted overwhelmingly in favor of the casinos, while Richmond decided to hold the vote until the 2021 election cycle.

Caesars Entertainment will construct the Danville-based casino and Hard Rock International will break ground on a property in Bristol. The Pamunkey Tribe has the rights to build the casino in Norfolk, while Rush Street Gaming will build its fifth casino in Portsmouth.

If Richmond passes the resolution in 2021, the Pamunkey Tribe will have the ability to erect a casino in the state’s capital.

The April legislation also legalized sports betting in Virginia, but that issue did not require a vote, meaning that all four, and potentially five, Virginia casinos will have sportsbooks.

South Dakota

In South Dakota, voters statewide decided that sports betting should be legal. About 58 percent of South Dakotan voters approved the measure.

The initiative passing means that the state’s constitution will be amended to allow the activity only at the state’s brick-and-mortar casino in Deadwood. The amendment does not allow for mobile or online betting, so it’s highly unlikely that online sportsbooks will pop up in South Dakota anytime soon.

Lawmakers will draft a bill in 2021 that will begin setting up the regulatory framework for the industry. They will pass a bill which will set tax rates and other regulatory guidelines for sports betting. According to multiple reports, the bill will likely pass in the first half of the year and retail sportsbooks will be up-and-running in Deadwood later that same year.

Maryland

Maryland’s sports betting initiative was similar to South Dakota’s in the sense that there was no regulatory framework outlined by the legislators, but it did not need to alter the constitution. About two-thirds of Maryland residents voted in favor of the issue.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic shortened the 2020 legislative session, Maryland lawmakers passed a bill that simply stated the voters would have the final say on whether to legalize sports betting. It unanimously passed the senate and by a 129-3 landslide margin in the house.

It also had support from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who urged voters to vote “Yes” on the measure just a few days before the election.

“Question 2 provides a critical revenue source for public education without raising taxes on families and businesses,” said Hogan in a statement. “This initiative builds on the very successful ‘Hogan Lockbox,’ which puts casino revenues in a lockbox dedicated to education. We are already funding our K-12 schools at record levels, and this is another way to ensure this is the case for years to come.”

The question on the ballot was very direct and let voters know that revenue stemming from this type of gambling would go to the state’s education system, reading, “Do you favor the expansion of commercial gaming in the State of Maryland to authorize sports and event betting for the primary purpose of raising revenue for education?”

Despite his vocal support, Hogan never actually signed his name on the bill when it hit his desk. Instead, he passed the bill through inaction.

The timeline for Maryland is reported to be similar to that of South Dakota. Lawmakers will carve out regulatory details during the 2021 session and sportsbooks can expect to launch later in the year. Unlike South Dakota, Maryland will roll out an online and mobile market within its state.

If Maryland ends up taxing its sportsbooks at the same 20 percent it taxes its casinos, then estimates have the state reaping $18.2 million in annual tax revenue from sports betting alone.

Louisiana

Louisiana also voted to legalize sports betting, but that was done in a parish-by-parish fashion. When the dust settled, an overwhelming majority decided to pass the initiative, with 55 of the state’s 64 parishes ultimately voting in favor of it.

Following election day, the official number was only 52, as there were still seven parishes counting votes and the results were just too close to call. Of the “too close to call parishes,” Beauregard, Grant and Richland ended up in favor of the resolution, while Caldwell, Jackson, Sabine and Union went against it. Catahoula, Franklin, LaSalle, and West Carroll were definitively against the measure on election night.

It’s not surprising that most parishes were in favor of it, as the state had a similar vote two years ago over whether daily fantasy sports should be legal. In 2018, 47 parishes decided to permit daily fantasy sports contests.

According to a report from the Baton Rouge Advocate, estimates on the potential tax revenue derived from sports betting are still unclear.

With the three sports betting victories, more than half the country has authorized sports betting as now 26 states have legalized the activity. Not all of those states have rolled out markets yet, however.

Colorado

Colorado became a part of that group when it legalized sports betting last year. But in 2020, voters decided to also allow residents of Black Hawk, Cripple Creek, and Central City to choose whether to raise the current $100 max bet, a rule that could provide a boom to the poker games in the state.

Those three cities are home to the state’s 33 commercial casinos, some of which have poker rooms. While it doesn’t affect traditional table games much, outside of the occasional high roller, it massively hinders poker games.

The rule effectively makes traditional no-limit hold’em cash games illegal. Since you can’t ever bet more than $100, the games are technically spread limit games with a max bet. But if the voters decide to raise it, some of the small-stakes games could functionally turn into a traditional no-limit game.

If the voters decide to get rid of the cap altogether, no-limit games of all stakes could be spread without another thought. A similar rule change was made in Florida in 2010, when the Sunshine State lifted a $100 max bet rule of its own.

The result was a mini poker boom, as games sprung up all over the state and poker players flocked to Florida from all over to get a piece of the action. Depending on what voters decide in those cities, a similar result could happen in the Centennial State. ♠