Some legislators eager to see WV cash in on legalized sports betting

AP file photo
Odds are displayed on a screen at a sports book owned and operated by CG Technology in Las Vegas, Jan. 14, 2015. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear arguments in a case that aims to legalize sports betting, some West Virginia legislators see an opportunity for the state to cash in on the industry.

Last week’s surprise decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to hear arguments in a case that aims to legalize sports betting has caught the attention of some West Virginia legislators.

“This is a great opportunity to delve into some revenue generation we desperately need,” said Delegate Shawn Fluharty. “It’s a no-brainer, I think, for our state.”

The federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 currently bans sports betting in every state except Nevada. But Supreme Court justices decided to consolidate two cases brought in New Jersey that seek to overturn that law and to hear arguments this fall.

Fluharty was lead sponsor of a bill during the 2017 regular session that would have legalized sports betting at West Virginia’s casinos. The bill was never taken up in the House of Delegates.

The Ohio County Democrat said he believes West Virginia has the opportunity to head off neighboring states on sports betting, as it did by legalizing racetrack video lottery in the early 1990s and table games in the early 2000s.

“If we’re able to get in front of this, we might be able to get out ahead of the other states for a few years,” Fluharty said. “The state desperately needs to generate new revenue.”

West Virginia’s lack of major professional sports franchises could give it an advantage in getting sports betting legislation enacted and operational more quickly than neighboring Ohio, Pennsylvania or Maryland, he said.

Fluharty’s bill would have the Lottery Commission establish and regulate sports betting, as it did with racetrack video lottery and table games.

“We already have the framework in place. The casinos are in place,” he said.

Fluharty said he believes it would be relatively simple for the state’s four racetrack casinos and The Greenbrier casino to convert a portion of their gaming floors to sports books, a lounge-type area featuring displays showing upcoming games and betting odds and big-screen televisions, and windows where patrons would place bets.

Besides boosting state revenue, sports betting could bolster state casinos hard hit by the recent proliferation of competing facilities in neighboring states, he said.

In November, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed a legal brief supporting New Jersey’s challenge of the sports betting prohibition. Morrisey’s solicitor general, Elbert Lin, said at the time that Morrisey, a Republican and a New Jersey native, was concerned about the federal government usurping states’ rights and not about people’s ability to wager on sports.

Morrisey spokesman Curtis Johnson reiterated that Friday: “The brief takes no position on the wisdom of state and federal sports wagering laws, but seeks to stop Congress from forcing states to act as a vehicle for implementing federal policy. Such commandeering is unconstitutional and unlawful.”

Johnson added, “In light of the Supreme Court agreeing to hear the case, we are hopeful that PASPA will be overturned and decision-making authority will once again be returned to the states.”

Asked for comment on the Supreme Court move, West Virginia Lottery Director Alan Larrick issued a statement saying, “We are still reviewing the case and will be watching the outcome carefully. It has the potential to create new opportunities for West Virginia.”

Fluharty said he is aware there will be pushback against his bill, particularly from House Republicans, but he said there are two realities that will work in its favor:

n The state needs the money, with prospects that legalization of sports betting could provide the state with $40 million to $70 million of revenue annually.

n People are already betting on sporting events, regardless of the law, with some estimating illegal sports betting nationally is a $400 billion industry.

“It’s already taking place, we’re just not making any money off it,” he said.

Fluharty’s bill (HB 2751) had 10 co-sponsors, including Democrats and Republicans.

Fluharty said he believes sports betting has appeal for millennials, an age group whose limited interest in traditional forms of gambling has affected the gaming industry nationally.

“Who is driving the fantasy sports industry? It’s millennials,” he said.

Fluharty, a Wheeling attorney, said he is confident the law banning sports betting outside of Nevada will be overturned, either through a U.S. Supreme Court decision or through an act of Congress repealing the law. Either way, he said he thinks it is unlikely to still be in force when the Legislature returns for the 2018 regular session.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1220 or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.

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