Massachusetts House and Senate GOP Leaders Say Legalizing Sports Betting Is A Priority

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By Sam Doran
State House News Service

House and Senate GOP leaders named legalization of sports betting and unlocking the voter-approved tax deduction for charitable giving among their top priorities heading into the second year of the legislative session.

In a joint interview, House Minority Leader Brad Jones and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr also identified legislation they would be comfortable passing in the quiet holiday season informal sessions, talked about how they work as the leaders of relatively small bands of Republican lawmakers, and expressed apprehension about a state of “disrepair” and division within the MassGOP.

Sports betting legislation has stalled out in the Senate after the House passed a bipartisan bill (H 3993) in July with only three Democrats opposed. Jones said constituents quiz him about the status of sports gaming legislation at “literally any event” he attends in his district.

“Whether or not you are a fan of gaming, or even of sports gaming, the fact is that we are leaving $30-50 million on the table,” Tarr said, “watching it — the activities — be conducted in other states that we could be getting the benefit of here.”

Jones said the monetary estimate would be higher if one took into account the bettors’ visits to restaurants, bars, and shops while across the border in a state that allows sports gaming.

“I think that is something that needs to be kind of amplified a little bit in the discussion, as we are more of an island unto ourselves. I shudder to think, the millions of dollars we probably lost just for the fact the Red Sox went into the playoffs and weren’t predicted to do so,” Jones said.

Tarr pointed to differing positions between lawmakers on questions like numbers of licenses or “skins,” and whether to include collegiate sports in the legalized betting arena. But the holdup could also be chalked up to House-Senate relations.

“It seems to me that there has been some interplay between the branches, and that may be holding it up,” Tarr said.

He added that even if there are “very substantial” differences in a Senate version, that could be sorted out in conference committee.

If it were up to Jones, lawmakers would take an open-book approach and hash out their differences on the floor.

“I guess I’m a little bit more of a, well you know what, put a bill on the floor, let the membership decide whether they want that in or they want it out, and then if people don’t like the final bill that’s crafted through that sausage-making process then they can vote it down,” Jones said. “But I think the way we’re not moving forward now, which is simply not to bring it up, isn’t serving — again, I’m asked that, literally any event I go to in the community. People say what’s going on, where is it at?”

The charitable giving tax deduction, a priority of Governor Charlie Baker’s, is likewise a “very high priority” for the caucuses, Tarr said, adding that his trio of Republican senators will continue to file measures to make the deduction available again after a 20-year hiatus. Jones said reinstating the deduction is important to ensure “public confidence” in Beacon Hill.

Taxpayers were only able to utilize the 5 percent deduction for one year after voters approved it at the ballot box in 2000. The Legislature suspended the tax break when the state ran into fiscal troubles in 2002.

“We just spent a lot of time debating an ARPA bill, and we spend time on other bills, where we’re trying to support nonprofit organizations that have been critical in helping us to survive the pandemic,” Tarr said. “Well, one way of helping them is to spend taxpayer dollars. Another way of doing it is to reward individuals who spend their own money on those things.”

The Senate minority leader added that his caucus may also push for an expanded sales tax holiday in the upcoming year.

Both lawmakers also urged action on a simple but prominent procedural matter — the setting of next year’s primary election date.

“We’ve had both late August dates, we’ve had September dates. And I know there’s always a discussion about, ‘Well, we should move it a lot earlier, and later.’ But the reality is that at some point we have to set a date, and we’re rapidly approaching that because we’re supposed to have papers available for candidates who want to run, after the first of the year,” Jones said.

The lack of legislative action on a primary date is a “problem,” Secretary William Galvin told State House News Service recently, and the date needs to respect the need to deliver ballots overseas.

“The Legislature has to do something and they haven’t done it, but maybe they’ll come back and do something, I don’t know,” said Galvin, the state’s elections overseer. “I’ve sent language to them, I talked to them before they left, I’m hopeful it will be done. But obviously we can’t put it in the calendar yet, we can’t tell everyone when it is, I can’t print nomination papers because I can’t put the date of the primary on there.”


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