After two years of work, a total of 13 committee hearings and a summer spent ironing out the differences between the House and Senate bills, Ohio sports betting couldn’t reach the Senate floor in the final days of the legislative session.
Bill sponsors did everything they could to get it across the goal line, and the industry was unanimously on board. So why did the effort falter?
Sen. John Eklund indicated that the bill’s failure had nothing to do with the content of what sponsors put together. Instead, the bill got caught up in a messy federal corruption case that hit the Ohio statehouse.
“I think it has to do with the aesthetics and pressure of other business and what people see as their priorities at this point,” Eklund said. “I think the time we lost to the COVID reaction was the first issue. Then the distraction caused by investigations into elected officials in Columbus and Cincinnati have given us a little bit too much of a heavy lift.”
Former House Speaker taints Ohio sports betting bill
The Ohio House passed sports betting legislation in May.
However, the bill was later connected to a federal probe of former Speaker Larry Householder, who was indicted in a federal bribery case.
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. It turns out the supposed developers were working for the FBI in a sting. The meeting had no impact on the bill.
But that didn’t stop lawmakers from looking at the legislation as if it had been compromised. Eklund confirmed that the substitute was made to the Senate bill in the lame-duck session rather than the House bill because some in the Senate didn’t want to touch a bill that had been attached to the scandal.
Fixing the nuclear energy bill that really was at the centerpiece of the federal probe also took a lot of the legislature’s attention during the lame-duck session.
Eklund not disappointed with outcome for Ohio sports betting
Eklund explained that he’s not disappointed to spend two years on this bill and not reach the finish line. He is returning to his law practice after terming out in the Senate.
“I recognize that sometimes a legislator’s best use is not to score a touchdown but rather to start a drive on your 10-yard line and get the ball down the field,” Eklund said. “I think we’ve done that, gone way past the 50-yard line, and it will be left to another squad to take it the rest of the way.”
The end of the line for the bill was when it didn’t get out of committee Wednesday. Eklund saw the bill as thoroughly vetted and ready for a vote.
“I thought it was in shape to pass out of committee and go on the Senate floor,” he said. “I think they should introduce this same bill next year and pass it. Will they? I don’t know. I’d like to think so.”
Now Ohio will have to start over on a bill without three of its four sponsors. Sen. Sean O’Brien and Rep. Dave Greenspan lost their re-election bids.
Maybe new bill can start with momentum in 2021
Eric Schippers, senior vice president for Penn National Gaming, doesn’t think the effort will be starting from scratch. Penn National owns four of the 11 casinos/racinos in Ohio.
“Even though there will be new sponsors, all the education we did and conversations we had will carry over into the new year,” Schippers said. “We’re optimistic this can be a focus early on in the new session and that there’s a lot of institutional knowledge now to help make the case easier going forward.”
Schippers hopes the bill can begin heating up again by the spring.
“Honestly, the bill pending in Ohio was a good product that did reflect a lot of what many states have done,” Schippers said. “This is not a huge setback. It’s a setback, but I think there’s a great opportunity to try to strike while the iron is hot when they come back next session.”
When Ohio lawmakers return next month, they will have to consider revenue options to help with COVID-19 deficits. Schippers hopes the upfront licensing fees and ongoing revenue stream of sports betting will be attractive.
“The switch can be turned fairly quickly because many of us are operating sports betting in other jurisdictions, have partners with experience and know how to operate sports betting,” Schippers said. “So we can hit the ground running.”