The Mississippi Gaming Commission is ready to regulate casino sports betting — and a new state law allows casinos here to play — should the U.S. Supreme Court clear the way next spring.
The nation’s highest court last month agreed to hear arguments on whether sports betting should be legalized at New Jersey casinos and racetracks. At issue is the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which effectively outlawed sports betting nationwide except for Nevada.
Mississippi is one of five states that joined New Jersey’s effort to have the case heard by the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court has refused in the past to address this issue, leading court observers to believe the court might well strike down the 1992 law. The case is expected to be heard this fall. A decision likely will come next spring.
What few Mississippians may know is that the Legislature in its last session paved the way for sports betting in Mississippi casinos with House Bill 967. The bill legalized sports fantasy betting in the state but also included language that would legalize sports betting in Mississippi casinos if the federal ban is lifted.
The bill, which effectively legalized sports betting without explicitly mentioning sports betting, passed overwhelmingly in both the House and the Senate and was signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant.
Bryant, however, says he is dead-set against legalized sports betting.
“I would not favor sports gambling, particularly betting on college sports,” Bryant said in a statement issued by his office. “The negative consequences of this idea should be obvious.”
House Speaker Philip Gunn’s office also said he is opposed. “The Speaker is anti-gambling in general. He has always been opposed to gambling,” said spokesperson Meg Annison.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves had no comment.
Yet all three signed off on a law that – although it never mentions sports betting – effectively would have the Mississippi Gaming Commission regulate sports betting in Mississippi casinos. Allen Godfrey, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, says his commission will be prepared if the Supreme Court acts to remove the federal ban. He says there is no doubt that the fantasy sports bill language would put sports betting in casinos under his commission’s purview.
“We already regulate sports gambling,” Godfrey said. “We arrest people who do it illegally.”
Attorney General Jim Hood said Mississippi joined with five other states in asking the Supreme Court to hear New Jersey’s case because he considers it a states’ rights issue.
“We have been consistent in fighting the federal government encroaching in what we believe are states’ rights issues,” Hood said. “I have probably signed on in more than 100 cases protecting states’ rights.”
Hood, who said he opposes sports betting personally, said his office has not studied House Bill 967.
Sports gambling, legal or not, is big business in Mississippi. Local bookies serve as modern day moonshiners, quenching the betting public’s thirst for sports wagering. Mississippians also bet legally with off-shore gambling companies via the Internet.
Proponents of sports betting in Mississippi casinos say essentially: Why not make it legal, regulate it and tax it for badly needed state revenue?
State Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, who voted for the bill, supports the state’s right to legalize, regulate and tax sports betting.
“I am generally in favor of allowing Mississippians the right to wager on sporting events,” Baria said. “I know it’s going on anyway with bookies, and I am personally aware of people who get on planes and fly out to Las Vegas to bet on football games.”
“This is revenue that can be used in Mississippi to help fund education and roads and bridges and to help improve healthcare,” he said.
Rep. Scott Delano, R-Biloxi, believes the sports fantasy law will give Mississippi’s casino properties a head-start on those in other states, should the Supreme Court make sports betting an issue for states to decide rather than the federal government.
“It will definitely give our properties a badly needed advantage,” Delano said. “This could be a boon for the entire state. It can be a boost for revenue, tourism and the casino industry.”
House Bill 967 never uses the words “sports betting.” Nevertheless, legal experts say there is little doubt House Bill 967, the so-called sports fantasy bill, would legalize casino sports betting and place it under the Mississippi Gaming Commission if sports betting becomes a states rights issue.
Passage of House Bill 967, in effect, changed the language in the Gaming Control Act, which previously said: “No wagering shall be allowed on the outcome of any athletic event, nor on any matter to be determined during an athletic event, which does not take place on the premises. And: No wager may be placed by, or on behalf of, any individual or entity or group, not present on a licensed vessel or cruise vessel.”
The amended portion reads: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, each licensee shall be required to comply with the regulation that no wager may be placed by, or on behalf of, any individual or entity or group, not present on a licensed vessel or cruise vessel.”
House Bill 967 took out the language that made illegal the betting on the outcome of any athletic event that does not take place on the premises.
An identical version of the bill also was introduced in the Senate.
Said Jay McDaniel, deputy director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission (MGC): “So now if the (federal) ban was not an issue, then a licensee could request permission from the MGC executive director to establish sports betting at a casino on events that take place somewhere else. Since the Gaming Control Act only authorizes sports betting at a casino, it would still be illegal at any non-casino establishments.”
Last fall Revenue Commissioner Herb Frierson, who previously served as House Appropriations Committee chairman, presented a bulleted list of reform suggestions to a panel of lawmakers, who had spent the summer and fall mulling a rewrite of the state’s entire tax policy.
Among the possibilities Frierson suggested for additional revenue was sports betting, an industry that rakes in $95 billion annually in the U.S. He said the industry could bring in an additional $88 million to $100 million in tax revenue if legalized and taxed on the state level.
“I know these things are very politically controversial with our conservative Christian friends, and I respect their positions, but I’m putting it all into consideration,” Frierson said.
That was long before the Supreme Court agreed to hear the sports gambling case.
Said Frierson Monday, “I just hope if the Supreme Court removes the federal ban that the betting that goes on now with a wink and a nod through bookies or on-line will be regulated in casinos by the Gaming Commission. We certainly will take care of taxing the industry.”
Cathy Beeding, in-house counsel for Island View Casino in Biloxi, said it is unclear how long it would take for casinos to be up and running for sports betting should the Supreme Court strike down the federal law.
“There are so many factors involved, but the idea would be not just to get it done quickly but to also get it done correctly,” Beeding said. “We are keenly watching what happens with the Supreme Court. We would love to offer this as an added amenity for our guests.”
Several Mississippi casinos, such as the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, are owned by Nevada-based corporations, already well-schooled in the sports betting operations.