Minnesotans watching televised sports this fall may be left feeling like they’re missing out. During the World Series, for example, everything from who’d homer first to pitchers’ strikeout tallies prompted on-screen boxes and explanations from the play-by-play guys on probabilities and payoffs.
Because bets were being wagered.
In 27 states and in Washington, D.C., including in Iowa and North Dakota, some form of sports betting has been made legal — and is being overwhelmingly embraced — following New Jersey's Supreme Court victory in May 2018 that allowed it and other states to join Nevada.
In Minnesota, however, a sure bet for taxpayers, with the state standing to reap tens of millions of dollars in tax proceeds, continues to be outside the law. Minnesotans continue to be left out and left behind without legalized sports betting.
No longer, if Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, gets his way when the Minnesota Legislature reconvenes this winter in St. Paul.
“I plan on introducing a bill to legalize sports betting … as I have done in the past,” Chamberlain announced in a statement last week to news outlets, including to the News Tribune Opinion page. “You work hard for your money, and if you want to place a little money in support of your favorite team, you shouldn’t have to drive to Iowa or use an international gambling app to do it. Sports wagering is good entertainment. It is a business, and it will create jobs. I hope to earn bipartisan support as we work to open these betting markets in Minnesota."
A growing number of Minnesota lawmakers have been working for years to legalize sports betting. A bill made progress in 2019; it passed a Senate committee after a similar measure didn't even get a hearing the year before that. In 2020, the bill was reintroduced but was quickly derailed — along with pretty much everything else — by the COVID-19 pandemic. Efforts last year met a similar fate, doomed by the continuing difficulties in conducting business in a pandemic and the top-priority need for lawmakers to pass a two-year state budget.
While DFL Gov. Tim Walz has said he'd be open to discussing legalizing sports betting, he also told Minnesota Public Radio that he’d prefer lawmakers consider legalizing cannabis, as it also could generate revenue while addressing racial disparities.
Another obstacle: "The state's politically potent tribes oppose it," as the Associated Press reported in 2019. The tribes operate 21 casinos in Minnesota and are understandably concerned about their monopoly. The tribes also give millions in campaign donations, as the AP report pointed out.
Encouragingly, state leaders have met extensively with the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association in apparent recognition that both sides stand to gain from legalization. There definitely is common ground. Federal law requires tribes be allowed to offer the same gambling in their casinos as would be offered off-reservation. The bill introduced last session specifically designated on-site wagering at casinos and racetracks and, after a year, remote sports betting through the same sites.
“(Sports betting is) already done flagrantly, and it's time to shine some light on it, put some guardrails around it (and) protections around it," DFL Sen. Karla Bigham of Cottage Grove, the Senate sponsor of the legislation last session, said in an MPR story in January. "Quite honestly, we need to legalize it."
"This is something that people are ready to see happen,” Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, the House sponsor of last year’s legislation, said in the MPR story. “They are sick of driving to Iowa … or using offshore sports books."
Bets would be allowed on professional and college games and even on plays within games. Many Minnesotans are eager to start wagering with their smartphones. With legislative leaders moving at a snail’s pace toward legalization here, Minnesotans have been filling parking lots at wagering points along Iowa’s northern border, especially on NFL game days.
Minnesota can move swiftly to legitimize what’s already happening on a widespread basis. Americans illegally wager about $150 billion a year on sports, the American Gaming Association estimated in 2019. If made legal here, Minnesotans would legally wager an estimated $2 billion a year on sports, according to the association. Even just a 5% tax on that would raise $100 million annually for the state. Think of all the crumbling bridges that could be fixed, textbooks purchased, and snowy highways plowed with such a tax windfall. The bill debated last session in St. Paul called for taxing on-site bets at 6% and remotely made wagers at 8%.
With sports betting in Minnesota in the shadows of illegitimacy rather than in the bright light of lawful behavior, Minnesotans are more at risk of scams and unscrupulous practices. Legalization would bring regulations to benefit and protect consumers, the safeguards applied also to advertising, the same way tobacco and alcohol ads are regulated — and for similar reasons.
With legalization, the state additionally and responsibly could designate a cut of revenues for programs to address gambling addiction and to help Minnesotans through other resultant social and health woes. Inadequate funds from the state are allocated to such causes now.
And that's not unlike the inadequate action in St. Paul since 2018 that’s leaving Minnesota behind and leaving tens of millions on the table that could instead be bolstering state coffers.