Let’s Take It Back: Ohio Ready To Take Another Crack At Sports Betting In 2021

Posted By Matthew Kredell on January 25, 2021

Rep. Brigid Kelly is the last person standing among Ohio sports betting sponsors.

With Sen. John Eklund termed out, and Rep. Dave Greenspan and Sen. Sean O’Brien losing their re-election bids, Kelly is bridging the gap between Ohio sports betting efforts in 2020 and 2021.

Kelly spoke with PlayOhio about what went wrong last year and what to expect from sports betting legislation this year.

“We put in a lot of work to try to get the bill to a good place and a place that it could pass,” Kelly said. “People are still betting in other states or in ways that are not legal. Now we have to start over again and it just means it’s a longer process, which is unfortunate considering that the states around us have almost all passed some form of legal sports betting.”

Explaining the failure of 2020

It appeared that Ohio was on the way to legalizing sports betting last year when Kelly and the other sponsors worked out the differences between the House and Senate bills.

The first sign of a snag came when Senate President Larry Obhof reportedly instructed a Senate committee not to consider the bill passed by the House.

“The bill was the product of lots of conversations and compromise between sponsors and the industry,” Kelly said. “I think it’s as good a bill as we could have come up with, so I’m disappointed that we couldn’t get it to come out of the Senate.”

Rumors spread that Senate leadership soured on the bill because it was attached to the scandal involving former House Speaker Larry Householder and a nuclear energy bill.

Cleveland.com reported that indicted lobbyist Neil Clark told them he set up a meeting between supposed hotel developers and Householder regarding the sports betting legislation.

“None of the primary sponsors had anything to do with any of that,” Kelly said. “We worked together in a very transparent and inclusive way. None of us were involved in any of those meetings, and frankly, the hotels were never contemplated in our bill.”

Nonetheless, the scandal derailed the efforts to pass sports betting legislation.

“I think what happened in Ohio with the scandal took the oxygen out of the room for a number of different things,” Kelly said. “Plus COVID really impacted our ability to work with legislation.”

Senate creates committee to explore gaming expansions

Sen. Matt Huffman is the new Senate President in Ohio. Last week he announced the creation of the Senate Select Committee on Gaming to analyze the industry’s economic impact on the state.

“The growing gaming industry is something Ohio must be prepared to address,” Huffman said in a statement. “This committee will ask the tough questions ranging from best practices to oversight. I look forward to their recommendations.”

Huffman appointed the following Senators to the committee:

  • Kirk Schuring (chair)
  • Nathan Manning (vice-chair)
  • Louis W. Blessing III
  • George F. Lang
  • Niraj Antani
  • Cecil Thomas
  • Hearcel F. Craig

This could mean the Senate is getting serious about doing sports betting. However, with how much consideration sports wagering received the previous two years, a committee to discuss sports betting doesn’t seem necessary. It raises concerns that the Senate will prolong the process by starting over rather than taking last year’s bill as a starting point.

In addition to sports betting, discussions could include internet gaming. Penn National Gaming, owner of four gaming facilities in the state, expressed interest in legalizing online casino.

Governor stumps for sports betting once again

Gov. Mike DeWine recently told News 5 Cleveland that he suspects Ohio will legalize sports betting this year.

DeWine told the local news program:

“We have people who are betting all the time in Ohio online and they’re going to do this and so allowing us to keep some of this money for education in the state seems to me to make sense.”

DeWine previously had called on the legislature to pass a sports betting bill by last year’s elections.

Prospects for Ohio sports betting passage in 2021

Kelly said she expects the new House bill to look very much like the substitute made in the Senate last December.

That bill authorized the state’s four casinos and seven racinos to offer sports betting. It limited each gaming establishment to one online skin, down from three in previous drafts. Kelly said she hasn’t been part of any talks to include online casino in the new bill.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to get it done in this general assembly,” Kelly said. “If people are going to engage in sports betting, we want them to be able to do it legally and here instead of in another state. The need for resources is still there and, the way the previous legislation was designed, money goes to extracurricular activities that are really important to kids and families.”

Kelly is talking to Republican lawmakers to find a majority party sponsor for the House bill.

“We’re still trying to work through who are going to be the primary folks,” Kelly said. “So I think once we get that together, then hopefully we’ll be able to start moving it expeditiously. As far as I’m concerned, the sooner the better.”

After 13 committee hearings on the issue, she believes the new sports betting bill will start past the 50-yard line.

“Hopefully that level of vetting in the previous assembly helps us moving it this time,” Kelly said. “The challenge is there’s a new crop of people that are going to want to look at the bill. So we’ll just have to work through the process.”

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Matthew Kredell

Matthew has covered efforts to legalize and regulate online gambling since 2007. His reporting on the legalization of sports betting began in 2010 with an article for Playboy Magazine on how the NFL was pushing US money overseas by fighting the expansion of regulated sports betting. A USC journalism alum, Matt started his career as a sportswriter at the Los Angeles Daily News and has written on a variety of topics for Playboy, Men’s Journal, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly and ESPN.com.

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