This election year increases the importance for Ohio to pass sports betting legislation.
If Ohio doesn’t approve sports betting in the lame-duck session, the bill will start over in the new year. And it will do so without some of its key legislative backers.
Sens. John Eklund and Bill Coley are terming out of their elected offices at the end of the year. Eklund is the Senate sponsor for sports betting. Coley is a former president of the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States.
Rep. Dave Greenspan, sponsor of H 194 that passed the House in May, also is facing a dogfight in his reelection bid. The Republican representative is from a Cleveland suburb district that is turning increasingly Democratic. In 2018, he won with just 53% of the vote.
Co-sponsors Sen. Sean O’Brien and Rep. Brigid Kelly also are up for reelection. However, they don’t hold as much sway being Democrats in Republican-controlled chambers and a state with a Republican governor.
Eklund ‘optimistic’ to finish what he started
Eklund has an abiding interest in seeing the sports betting bill passed. He takes no pride in being the lawmaker to get the job done though.
“What I’ve come to understand as part of the legislative process is that big ideas and big change comes over time,” Eklund said. “One of the legislature’s roles often times is not to get bills passed but rather to get them going and leave them for somebody else to pick up and run with.
“So I don’t know what’s going to happen with sports betting between now and the end of December, but whether it becomes law in Ohio or not, I feel confident and pleased that the ball has been moved up the field as they say. Maybe somebody will come in next year and kick a field goal.”
That doesn’t sound very promising for sports betting’s prospects in the lame-duck session. But Eklund remains hopeful that the Ohio legislature can get to a good place on the bill.
“I remain optimistic because I think the sports gaming bill touches all the bases,” Eklund said. “It’s based on sound policy, upon a federal recognition that Ohio can do for its citizens what Ohio wants to do, and all the advocates have been very engaged and respectful. I think the stars still align.”
Ohio sports betting bill has been a lot of work
Eklund has worked on sports betting legislation for more than two years, introducing S 111 early in 2019. Bills carry over between Ohio’s two-year legislative sessions.
He took the lead on sports betting in the Senate because of his belief that gaming issues should be decided at the state level.
“The US Supreme Court made a ruling a few years ago that said states may choose to do sports betting and get the federal government’s nose out of state business,” Eklund said. “Any time there’s an opening for that and you can justify it with good policy, that’s a big deal to me.”
When first approached about offering a sports gambling bill, Eklund admits that he was mildly opposed to including online wagering. He envisioned his grandson who likes to play games on the phone finding a way to bet on sports.
Over time, he became confident with the safeguards sports betting platforms put in place to protect minors and problem gamblers.
After a year of bickering, Eklund and Greenspan ironed out the differences between their bills over the summer. Eklund sees some positive momentum building since they released their substitute draft bill.
“Here we are facing a tough budget year and with an important industry in Ohio casinos struggling through no fault of its own. That internal advocacy is ongoing and will continue, I think with some positive effect.”
Act now or potentially lose control of sports betting
Eklund pointed out another reason he believes it behooves his colleagues to legalize sports betting this year.
If the Ohio general assembly doesn’t act on sports betting, eventually the industry will bypass the legislature and put an initiative on the ballot. Then the state loses control over the matter.
That could happen as soon as 2021. Ohio is one of three states that allows initiatives to qualify for the ballot in odd-numbered years.
“That, in my view, is a recipe for disaster,” Eklund said. “… The constitution is no place for this type of stuff. This is a good, practical reason why one might say time is of the essence, and that’s an issue not lost on a number of legislators.”
This is what happened with casino gaming in Ohio. Making no progress in the legislature, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Penn National Gaming backed the Ohio Casino Approval and Tax Distribution Amendment that passed in 2009.
Codifying casino parameters in the state constitution made it difficult for the legislature to make changes to the industry.
Unexpected legislator enjoys nine years of public service
An attorney with a 40-year career in anti-trust law and commercial business litigation, Eklund decided to run for office when the Ohio economy was down in the dumps following the Great Recession.
Although the coronavirus crisis rolled back the progress, he likes to think he took part in turning around the economy.
“I had no idea what to expect; I was like a babe in the woods,” Eklund said. “But I have to tell you, it’s been some of the most uplifting time that I have spent professionally in my life. In the legislative world, these are people who are bringing their issues to us.
“It’s entirely voluntary, and they’re important issues for them. To realize that people willingly come to a branch of government to address what they perceive as something that’s wrong, and they entrust these things to us, that’s a very big deal to me. It tells me that the people of Ohio continue to have faith and confidence in our system of government. That’s a high responsibility but at the same time a very uplifting one.”
After finishing his nine years of public service in the Ohio Senate, Eklund plans to return to practicing law at Calfee, Halter & Griswold, where he is a partner.
Federal probe creates doubts for Ohio sports betting
Reports connect the House sports betting bill with a federal investigation into corruption in the Ohio statehouse.
While the case centers around an energy bill, Cleveland.com reported that indicted lobbyist Neil Clark told them he set up a meeting with supposed hotel developers and then-House Speaker Larry Householder regarding the sports betting legislation. He now suspects those supposed developers were working for the FBI.
Eklund scoffs at the notion that corruption affected the sports betting bill.
“I would argue it should not affect the bill’s chances because: 1) We don’t make policy on the basis of press interviews and; 2) What we end up with is likely to be much different from what the House passed and not friendly to hotel developers, real or pretend.”
However, if there are people in the legislature who would prefer Ohio not legalize sports betting this year, this gives them an opening.
Eklund expects legislators will return to work the week following the election and possibly continue up to the new year.