Mills vetoes bill to legalize sports betting in Maine

By Scott Thistle

Portland Press Herald

AUGUSTA — Governor Janet Mills shut the door on legalized sports betting on Friday when she vetoed a bill that would have seen Maine join 12 other states that have approved gambling on sporting events, both in person and online.

The bill, one of three Mills vetoed, was among 40 she had held since the end of the last lawmaking session in June, saying they had technical issues or needed additional work. The Legislature recalled 13 of the bills last Wednesday — the sports gambling bill was not among them — to allow lawmakers to make changes that would satisfy her concerns before sending them back to her for consideration.

The Governor allowed the 24 other bills to become law without her signature. Under the Maine Constitution, she was required to make a decision on the bills before midnight Saturday.

Sen. Louie Luchini (D-Hancock County) sponsored the sports betting bill and was disappointed by Mills’ veto. He was in San Diego on Friday at a conference for states with gambling and said Mills called to inform him of her decision shortly before she released her two-page veto message to the public.

“I appreciate that she took a real thoughtful approach and researched the topic thoroughly, and I’m willing to keep working on it to make it a more acceptable measure for anyone who has issues with it,” Luchini said. He noted, however, that as many as 20 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia are poised to legalize sports betting and collect tax revenue from it in 2020.

Estimates on how much sports betting would be worth in Maine varied widely, but a fiscal note attached to the bill suggests that if it were fully implemented, originally scheduled to occur in 2023, the state would collect as much as $5 million a year in fees and taxes. However, sports betting revenue forecasts fell dramatically short in several states that legalized it in 2018 and 2019.

Supporters of the bill say millions of dollars in illegal sports betting, much of it online and with offshore entities, already is taking place in Maine without the state receiving tax revenue.

Mills’ veto message downplayed the revenue considerations and focused on the harm the legislation could have on youth and low-income Mainers.

“Before Maine joins the frenzy of states hungry to attract this market, I believe we need to examine the issue more clearly; better understand the evolving experiences of other states; and thoughtfully determine the best approach for Maine,” Mills wrote. “That approach needs to balance the desire to suppress gambling activities now being conducted illegally and the need to protect youthful gamblers and those least able to absorb losses under a closely regulated scheme.”

The bill would have prohibited betting on youth sports, including high school athletics, but left the door open to some amateur and semi-pro sporting events.

The bill, which would have given just about every entity with an interest in gambling a slice of the revenue, faced no formal opposition in the Legislature beyond some lawmakers voicing concern over problem gamblers. The bill would allow casino operators, off-track betting parlors, harness racing tracks and Native American tribes in Maine to host sports betting operations.

The veto will be the subject of an override vote with a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate required to overturn Mills’ decision. The only roll-call vote on the bill taken in the Legislature so far was in the Senate last June, when the measure was approved 19-15 with a mix of Republicans and Democrats both supporting and opposing the measures. The bill gained unanimous approval in subsequent votes.

House Minority Leader, Kathleen Dillingham (R-Oxford) supported the measure — her district includes the Oxford Casino — and was disappointed by the Governor’s action.

“Though there may remain questions concerning potential revenues from this industry, it is clear that many Mainers already participate in sports wagering,” Dillingham said in an email Friday night. “I am concerned with our lack of oversight and the absence of consumer protections for those choosing to participate in this type of wagering.”

In May 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal prohibition on sports betting. Since then, a dozen states — New Hampshire was the most recent state to allow the practice — have joined Nevada in allowing gambling on sporting events.

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