Louisiana voters will be able to approve sports betting in their parishes as part of the 2020 ballot after lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the measure to do so Wednesday.
The limited bill simply asks voters statewide if sports betting should be legalized within their home parish. It doesn’t lay out key provisions such as purveyor eligibility, mobile access and tax rates, all of which will have to be determined through separate legislation at a future legislative session.
The bill now goes to the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards for final approval, but that doesn’t appear to be an obstacle after he largely supported gaming measures through his first four years in office.
Assuming no further logistical hiccups, voters should see the sports betting question on their ballot Nov. 3. Should officials agree to the necessary follow up legislation and regulations, eligible Louisiana residents and guests should be able to place bets as early as summer or fall 2021.
Wednesday’s 71-24 vote clears a sports betting bill after two prior tries fell shot.
Supporters including former Senate Majority Leader Danny Martiny pushed lawmakers to allow sports betting at state casinos and horse tracks partially as a means to compete with neighboring Mississippi and Arkansas, which started taking bets in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
After a bill easily cleared the Senate in 2019, it was derailed when the House included video poker terminals to the bill. The casino industry, not wanting to compete with the thousands of statewide terminals, withdrew support. Meanwhile conservative gambling opponents in the Republican-controlled legislature viewed statewide sports betting at terminals as a bridge too far, and the bill died in the House.
With Martiny term-limited from office after the 2019 elections, lawmakers in the legislature decided to punt the more significant debates about sports betting’s shape in 2020 and instead seek approval through the voters.
Sen. Cameron Henry, elected to the Senate last fall after serving in the House as chairman of the powerful appropriations committee, led the sports betting ballot measure charge in the legislature. Sen. Ronnie Johns, a veteran lawmaker and one of the upper chamber’s leading gaming advocates, co-authored Henry’s bill while also sponsoring an identical measure.
Both bills advanced easily through the Senate and ultimately the House, with both lawmakers touting the measure as simply a way for voters to voice their thoughts on legal sports betting. Backers also championed wagering as a new revenue stream, which resonated with elected officials in a state facing one of the nation’s most daunting budget situations from the effects of COVID-19 as well as falling gas prices.
After a nearly identical House version of the bill cruised through the House last week, Wednesday’s vote to advance Henry’s legislation was largely a formality.
Wednesday’s vote is a critical step for Louisiana sports betting, but it doesn’t mean legal wagering is a sure bet.
The same battles between the casinos and video poker industries will likely reemerge when lawmakers take up the follow-up bill, most likely during the 2021 session. Henry, who chaired the committee that inserted the video poker access into the casino sports betting bill, will not have as much influence as a first-term Senator but nevertheless remains an influential voice in the legislature.
As sports betting access at the thousands of terminals at Louisiana bars, restaurants and truck stops remains controversial, so too does debate over online access. The ballot measure doesn’t specify if mobile betting can occur; it simply means it can’t operate in parishes that vote against sports betting.
Online betting makes up as much as 90% of overall handle in mature markets with competitive offerings, creating a much larger possible tax windfall. At the same time the increased access could further deter conservative members who opposed wagering at the poker terminals in 2019.
The debate shaping up in 2021 comes after lawmakers couldn’t reach similar agreements over regulating and taxing daily fantasy sports. Like with the sports gambling ballot measure, legislators allowed voters to approve DFS games in their home parish. Despite overwhelming support in most parishes, DFS games are still not operating more than 18 months later.
Still, the more audacious push for sports betting will come in a starkly different political environment for Louisiana than it imagined just a few months ago. Preparing for an expanded budget before the COVID-19 outbreak, Louisiana now faces a growing budget gap as lawmakers scramble to meet the state’s balanced budget requirements.
Sports betting, even in the best-case of scenarios, would be a minor relief for the looming financial strains, but lawmakers in Baton Rouge seem more amenable than ever to new revenue streams, especially in a state as dependent on tourism and energy revenues as Louisiana. They have even included daily fantasy sports as part of a 41-point plan for a special session set to begin one minute after the 2020 regular session expires June 1.
Add all that to the relative ease which the ballot measure cruised through the legislature and it appears Louisiana sports betting is on solid footing. There’s a long way to go before Louisianans can place a legal sports bet, but as of today those prospects look better than ever.