Nothing will change immediately in Montana after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision deeming unconstitutional a federal law that prohibits most states from allowing betting on sports.
The court’s decision reverses the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which left Nevada as the only state with comprehensive sports betting. Montana and a handful of other states were allowed to keep some limited sports betting they had at the time, including things like sports pools, sports tabs and Calcutta auctions.
While the court’s decision could open the way in Montana for more sports betting similar to that in Las Vegas, it would take the Legislature introducing and passing a bill to allow for it. The next regularly scheduled session is in 2019.
“How’s that impact Montana right now? It doesn’t until the Legislature meets and decides to change the law,” said Neil Peterson, executive director of the Gaming Industry Association of Montana. “We have 150 legislators and so one might introduce a bill to allow sports betting in Montana.”
The case in front of the court came out of New Jersey, where that state sought to legalize sports betting with an 8 percent tax on bets made in person and a 12.5 percent tax on bets made through the internet. The revenues would go toward programs for people with disabilities and the elderly.
About 15 states have proposals for sports betting in the works, and various media outlets have reported that at least one state, Rhode Island, has built in $24 million in revenues into its 2019 budget coming from sports betting.
But most people who follow sports betting here don’t think Montana, which has seen significant revenue woes and budget cuts over the last year, would see much of a payday from expanded sports betting.
“Obviously New Jersey thinks they’re going to get hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue to the state, but that’s just not the case in Montana,” Peterson said. “We don’t have that many people.”
State Sen. Mark Blasdel, who is on the Gaming Advisory Council that examines and advises on gambling, agreed.
“I don’t think it’s a significant revenue source,” said Blasdel, R-Kalispell. “It’d be another option if that’s what they put forward, but it all depends on what the framework and the legislation looks like.”
It's hard to gauge what sort of revenue expanded sports betting would bring here.
The state doesn’t tax or charge fees on bars or establishments that offer sports pools, which also don’t require a permit, said Angela Nunn, administrator of the Gambling Control Division under the Montana Department of Justice. The division has a $1 tax on sports tabs, which aren’t nearly as popular. And there’s only a $25 fee on Calcutta applications to help make sure the paperwork is processed correctly.
There’s also 100 percent payout from those types of gaming, so the locations that host it don’t profit either, Nunn said.
The Montana Lottery also has two fantasy sports betting games that it operates on behalf of the Board of Horse Racing through a memorandum of understanding. Sales for those games are very minimal, with $43,417 spent on fantasy racing and $132,412 on fantasy football. The Board of Horse Racing gets $55,127 from those operations.
Blasdel and state Rep. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, also raised the question of the ethics surrounding generating revenue off of gambling.
“We use the lottery to fix revenue shortfalls, so I think we’ve kind of surrendered the whole moral high ground,” Mandeville said.
Last legislative session, Mandeville carried a bill related to online fantasy sports leagues in Montana. He predicted possible interest in someone bringing a bill next year to allow for sports betting, but wasn’t sure what kind of support it would get.
There’s also not anyone in Montana that has the “wherewithal or the capacity to run their own sports book,” Peterson said. “We’re fairly small as far as gaming is concerned.”