CLEVELAND, Ohio – The time is right for Ohio to seriously debate how to move forward with online sports wagering and casino-style sports books under regulation by the Ohio Casino Control Commission, a leading legislator in the process told cleveland.com editors and reporters on Friday.
But, to allow such wagering at any gas station or convenience store now taking Keno bets could be going too far, said state Sen. John Eklund, a Chardon-area Republican.
His answers came in response to editorial board questions about whether Ohio will follow neighboring West Virginia and Pennsylvania into the sports betting arena.
Eklund, after studying the issues for three to four months, said he found it is logical to:
- Regulate sports gaming through the Ohio Casino Control Commission, rather than the Ohio Lottery as proposed by other legislators.
- Base in-person betting at casinos and racinos, run by industry professionals who have “developed a broad and deep body of knowledge and experience.”
- Permit online wagering in response to the consumer habits of younger adults so people living far from a casino or racino would being able to “enjoy that activity.” He noted that location-based technology can ensure that people are within Ohio borders when placing bets.
A word of caution
However, Eklund, co-sponsor of one of the two sports betting bills in the legislature, offered caution in two areas – no decisions have been made by state lawmakers, and even If Ohio does move forward, new tax money would be “a drop in the bucket” for Ohio’s overall budget.
Sen. President Larry Obhof, a Medina Republican, noted that he and Eklund have different views.
“We’ll let the legislative process run its course, but I don’t think it is a given that we will legalize” sports gambling, Obhof said.
Eklund said he considered the pending proposals as starting points for legislative debate.
A Senate bill introduced in March by Eklund and Warren-area Democrat Sean O’Brien differed in some key ways from what was introduced this month in the House by Reps. Dave Greenspan, a Westlake Republican, and Brigid Kelly, a Cincinnati Democrat.
Though both bills would permit sports wagering at Ohio’s 11 casinos and racinos:
- The Greenspan/Kelly proposal does not address online or mobile betting, and places the regulation under the Ohio Lottery Commission, which is now responsible for regulating slots-only racinos at seven Ohio horse tracks.
- The Eklund/Kelly proposal would allow online betting, and put the regulation in the hands of the Ohio Casino Control Commission, which oversees slots and table gambling at Ohio’s casinos in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Toledo.
“I think there is a palpable difference between lottery games and sports gaming,” Eklund said.
The casino commission, Eklund said, has “an incredible level of expertise and knowledge about how to do it, how to do it safely, how to do it right.” He said the House bill would instead create a new bureaucracy with a sports gaming council to advise the lottery “on how to do this; that speaks volumes to me.”
Eklund said it was important to include a mobile betting option because “in today’s world people from the ages 18 to 35, 36, it’s getting older, 38, they do everything online. I think as a commercial enterprise you have to provide what your audience or customers want.”
“Will it encourage people with a gambling problem to go out there and gamble? This activity already goes on in the United States of America through off-shore sports gaming sites. … If somebody has a gambling problem, I feel very badly for them and their families. But if online gaming is what they want to feed their addiction, there is plenty of it out there.”
Supreme Court opens the door
The debate over the possible expansion into sports gambling took off last May when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that barred gambling on football, basketball, baseball and other sports in most states.
Such wagering is now legal in Delaware, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Mississippi and West Virginia.
But, sports wagering generally is not a big generator of tax money.
In Nevada, the only state where in-person bets could be placed before the Supreme Court ruling, sports books account for just over 2 percent of casino gambling revenue in the state, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board.
This amounted to $248.8 million in winnings in 2017 for the casinos (money kept after paying off sports wagers). Nevada taxed that at a rate of 6.75 percent, bringing in under $20 million in taxes.
The two Ohio proposals call for tax rates of 10 percent and 6.25 percent.
Gov. Mike DeWine earlier this year predicted that sports gambling is on its way to Ohio, but he deferred to the legislature to determine how to proceed. DeWine said he expects some tax dollars from sports wagering to begin flowing within the next two years.
“I have always said,” Eklund noted Friday, “… that there has been no decision.”
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