Maryland iGaming bill prospects lag, state Senator considers push for referendum

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Haley Hintze Author Photo
Haley Hintze
Posted on: March 20, 2024 12:16 PDT

Saturday's passage by a 70:30 margin by the Maryland House of Delegates of a measure to regulate most casino-style forms of online gambling, including online poker, has run into headwinds as its proponents work against the clock to find a way toward an iGaming bill's passage. Faced with an April 8 deadline when the Maryland legislature adjourns, the state Senate's primary iGaming backer believes prospects for passage are cloudly at best, and that seeking to place the issue before the state's voters via referendum is a likelier route to success.

State Senator Ron Watson, in speaking to both regional and online outlets, believes that there's little chance that he can muster enough supports for House Bill 1319, which passed Saturday's vote on a 92-43 tally.

Sen. Watson, who sponsored two somewhat different iGaming bills into the Maryland Senate earlier this year, sees little chance for a detailed bill to pass. Watson's SB 603 and SB 565 were the vehicles for two online-gambling hearings held several weeks ago, but the hearings have resulted in no committee votes on the topic to date.

Similarly, the just-passed House measure has received its mandatory first full Senate reading and has been assigned to the Senate's Budget and Taxation committee, where Watson's two measures already sit. Like Watson's bills, the House bill appears set to languish without further action.

Referendum approach believed to have better chance

Watson appears to have already given up on his SB 603 bill, which was roughly similar to HB 1319, though approval of a Senate bill would have required its return to the House for another vote on changes or amendments. Instead, in the face of several obstacles to quick passage, Watson is pressing forward instead with his SB 565, which is designed to put iGaming on the ballot in November.

Speaking in bits and pieces to multiple outlets, Watson outlined at least five different reasons why he believes that the referendum approach is iGaming's only hope for Maryland in 2024. The reasons Watson cited include:

  • The end of the current legislative session on April 8, as noted above.
  • The need for a compromise bill to clear a 60-40 super-majority to pass. The 60-40 margin applies to any bill connected to gambling and casino operations, since iGaming falls into an area covered by the state's constitution.
  • The Senate Budget and Taxation committee has shown little support for iGaming measures in the past, including in 2020 when a different bill passed the House.
  • Maryland's current fiscal year has a balanced budget, lessening the immediate need for the creation of new revenue streams.
  • Strong opposition lobbying, including by casino workers waving the "cannabalization" flag, and by two of the state's six casinos, including the prominent Maryland LIVE! venue.

Faced with all that, Watson repeatedly stated that iGaming's best immediate hopes come from lobbying Senate fence-sitters to "let the voters decide." aThat also entails stripping out most of the specifics found in HB 1319 and SB 605, and using SB 565 as the referendum vehicle in general terms.

If passed, that would likely involve paring down the already-brief SB 565 into a single short paragraph for the November ballot and asking voters to approve casino-style iGaming as authorized by Maryland's gaming regulators. Details such as the poker-specific choice of joining the Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement (MSIGA), would be left to government officials to decide and wouldn't be present within the referendum's text.

Watson's foresight in having the SB 565 referendum option available speaks to the cloudiness in place on the issue, with mixed prospects at best for 2024. “I hope at minimum to pass a referendum and put this to voters,” Watson told PlayUSA. “Because if we don’t do a referendum this year, we have to wait until 2026.”