Supreme Court decision could open door for sports betting in Pennsylvania

HARRISBURG — In an overlooked provision in the state's gaming expansion bill, lawmakers took a gamble that New Jersey might win in its bid to undo the federal ban on sports betting.

The recently passed gaming expansion bill says that if the Supreme Court rules that New Jersey can offer sports betting, Pennsylvania will move to legalize sports betting as well.

The high court case isn’t the only uncertain element complicating the rollout of the gaming expansion though.


The law also allows local municipalities to notify the state that they don’t want to host one of the mini-casinos allowed by the expansion.

And, the law allows the dozen counties that already have casinos to say they don’t want trucks stops to be able to offer gambling on video gambling terminals. Counties that don’t have casinos have no authority to ban the truck stop gambling.

The potential sports betting expansion has flown under-the-radar, largely because it wasn’t clear how quickly or whether the U.S. Supreme Court would take up the New Jersey case, said state Rep. Tedd Nesbit, R-Mercer County, a member of the House gaming oversight committee.

The idea of getting ready to legalize sports betting if the Supreme Court overturned the ban was championed by state Rep. Robert Matzie, a Democrat from Beaver County.

Matzie maintains that the growth of fantasy sports games online have helped make sports betting overall seem more mainstream.

“Sports betting in the United States totals an estimated $400 billion per year, with only 1 percent taking place in legal form,” he said in a memo to lawmakers. “Fantasy sports betting draws in an estimated 57 million participants. The reality is that not only has the perception of sports betting changed over the years, but the ways in which to participate in some form of sports betting has greatly increased.”

Nesbit said he opposed the gaming expansion. But he added that if the state is going to allow all the other forms of gambling, then it’s hard to see why it wouldn’t let people bet on sports, as well.

“Why can’t you bet on the Super Bowl, if you can go into a casino” Nesbit asked.

Oral arguments in Christie v. NCAA, named after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and the governing body for collegiate sports, were held last week.

In the lawsuit, New Jersey is seeking to have the Supreme Court overturn the 1992 federal law that bars sports betting in all but a handful of states. Nevada, Oregon, Montana and Delaware are allowed to have legal sports betting because they had it in place before the federal ban was enacted.

Michelle Minton, who attended the Supreme Court arguments in the sports betting case, as a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said the justices appear to be leaning toward overturning the federal sports betting ban.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a libertarian think tank, based in Washington.

Minton said she left the courtroom “much more confident New Jersey will get a full win,” based on the degree of skepticism the justices displayed in listening to the arguments defending the ban.

How quickly and substantially that will translate into sports betting in Pennsylvania is an open question.

The gaming expansion provides that if the federal ban is overturned, the Gaming Control Board can begin allowing casinos to offer sports betting both at their casinos and online.


But Pennsylvania’s gaming bill calls for levying a $10 million licensing fee, and then taxing the wagering activity at 36 percent. Nevada taxes sports betting at a 6 percent rate, Minton said.

If Pennsylvania’s tax rate is too out-of-whack, bookies will likely make up their difference in cost by offering bettors worse odds, Minton said. That will cause people to cross the border to bet or do what their already doing now, place bets illegally, she said.

Opting out of mini-casinos and truck stop gambling

As of Monday, Monroe, Washington and Northampton counties were the only ones that have told the state they didn’t want truck stop gambling, through Monday, according to the Gaming Control Board.

The control board has a list of 203 municipalities that have said they don’t want to host mini-casinos. The deadline to opt out is the end of the month.

The gaming law does allow local municipalities to change their minds – once, said Doug Harbach, a spokesman for the Gaming Control Board.

If they change their mind and revoke their resolution barring a mini-casino, they are barred from trying to opt out a second time, he said.

Lisa Schaefer, director of government relations for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said that she’s heard from officials in “one or two counties, who’d say, ‘It would have been nice if they’d have let us decide,’” she said.

But there has been no groundswell of opposition to the gaming expansion changes, she said.