More than four years after the U.S. Supreme Court said that states could legalize sports wagering, Massachusetts did just that when Gov. Charlie Baker signed a sports betting bill Wednesday afternoon, shifting public attention onto the Gaming Commission's rollout of the newly legal activity.
The sports betting bill was one of 17 that Baker acted on on Wednesday — he also signed legislation intended to expand access to mental health care services in Massachusetts and approved most of a judiciary IT bond bill that includes language to reshape the state's gun laws in reaction to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The bill Baker signed will allow people 21 years or older to bet on professional sports and most collegiate sports at the state's casinos, slots parlor, simulcast centers and through mobile platforms. Betting on Massachusetts colleges or universities is banned unless the team is participating in a tournament with at least three other participants.
Sports betting legalization has been a popular topic on Beacon Hill since the spring of 2018, when some legislative leaders talked of considering sports betting on an "expedited basis." But neither branch acted until the House included sports betting legalization in a 2020 economic development bill (it didn't survive negotiations with the Senate), and the idea of legalization was thrown into doubt this session by the Senate's hesitance to bring a bill to the floor. Ultimately, the sports betting bill was the last matter of business sent to Baker before formal sessions ended until 2023.
"Our administration first filed legislation to legalize sports wagering in the Commonwealth several years ago, and I am glad to be able to sign this bill into law today," Baker said in a statement. "We appreciate the dedication and compromise that the Legislature demonstrated on this issue, and we look forward to supporting the work of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission on the responsible implementation of the law over the next several months."
It is now up to the Gaming Commission to make legal sports betting a reality for Bay Staters. The commission is charged under the new law with regulating sports betting and the staff there has already come up with a list of about 225 regulations that will need to be drafted.
"[A] great deal of work has already been done by our team in anticipation of sports wagering becoming legal in Massachusetts. This includes identifying over 200 potential regulations, adopting a framework to utilize industry-recognized technical standards, establishing an infrastructure to investigate and license applicants, initiating the hiring of a Chief of Sports Wagering, and scheduling public meetings," Gaming Commission Executive Director Karen Wells said Wednesday. "Now that we have a law that defines our responsibilities as regulator, we will work with our stakeholders to swiftly stand up this new industry with a focus on integrity, player safety and consumer protection."
The Gaming Commission meets Thursday morning and the agenda calls for an update from Wells on the implementation of sports betting.
Commission Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said last week that the commission wants to hold "at the first available date" a roundtable discussion with its existing licensees — Encore Boston Harbor, MGM Springfield, and Plainridge Park Casino, and simulcast centers Raynham Park and Suffolk Downs — to get more detail on their plans for sports betting operations and to get their input as the commission sets out to write the rules for legal sports betting.
North Grounsell, vice president and general manager at Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville, said his team is "excited to continue working with the Mass Gaming Commission to quickly open our retail sports book" so patrons can take advantage of the newly legal offering.
"This is an important step in ensuring that Massachusetts can compete with neighboring states in a highly competitive gaming market and repatriate tax dollars leaving the state," Grounsell said.
Fittingly, Baker also signed Wednesday a mental health access bill that had factored into the State House debate around sports betting. While the House was eager to see the Senate take up sports betting, Senate President Karen Spilka made clear that she had other priorities and regularly pointed to the importance of the Senate's mental health care bill when asked about sports betting. A breakthrough on sports betting talks was announced at about 5:10 a.m. on Aug. 1 and word that a final mental health bill had been signed off on got out at the same time.
Spilka said Tuesday that the mental health bill "is already being heralded as a landmark, first-in-the-nation bill." The new law seeks to rein in the emergency department boarding crisis, eliminates a prior authorization requirement for mental health acute treatment, and requires commercial insurers to cover emergency service programs.
"Today I am pleased to sign legislation that expands access to behavioral health services, enhances our understanding of behavioral health challenges and takes steps to ensure our health care system treats mental health the same way we do physical health," Baker said. "The COVID-19 pandemic underscored long-standing challenges in this area, which is why our administration has made significant investments to increase access through our Behavioral Health Roadmap. The new law signed today will build on that work and affirms the shared commitment of our administration, the Legislature and our health care community to better support our residents' behavioral health needs."
The governor on Wednesday also signed almost all of a $165.5 million bill that began as a judiciary IT bond bill meant to modernize the state's courthouse and court operations but was expanded to include language to conform Massachusetts laws to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen. The court struck down New York's requirement that applicants demonstrate "proper cause" for a concealed carry permit and justices singled out a Massachusetts law as being similar.
"I support these changes," Baker wrote in his signing letter.
The one section of the judiciary IT bond bill that Baker returned to the Legislature "is entirely unrelated to information technology spending" and would have required "that the unexpended balance remaining in a line item from the 2018 General Government Bond Bill be spent exclusively on court facilities in New Bedford," the governor said.
The section "would thus have the direct effect, if approved, of stopping all other court projects, including ongoing work at the Quincy Regional Justice Center, the Framingham Regional Justice Center, and the Springfield Hall of Justice, in favor of building a new facility in New Bedford," Baker wrote to lawmakers. "This cannot be what the Legislature intended."
This article was originally published on August 10, 2022.