Advocates of legalized sports betting in Minnesota are urging the Legislature to allow wagers on their favorite athletic contests, drawing hope from a wave of states across the country that have done so in the past year.
But the Legislature and new Gov. Tim Walz have a busy agenda, including crafting a two-year budget expected to be nearly $50 billion and addressing bread-and-butter issues like education and health care.
Even second-tier issues like gun control and legalizing marijuana are likely to be more urgent priorities for House Democrats, who are newly in the majority.
"I don't think anyone wants to rush into anything," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, who as the majority leader has a big say in which bills reach the House floor.
States are moving to consider legalized sports betting in the wake of a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a law prohibiting sports wagers in every state except Nevada. Since the ruling, New Jersey, Delaware, Mississippi and several other states have legalized sports betting, with many others considering bills.
The Minnesota Indian Gaming Association has already signaled opposition to any legislation this year. Charles Vig, the chairman of the influential group, wrote a letter to Walz and legislative leaders calling for more study while reiterating opposition to the expansion of off-reservation gambling, including the legalization of sports betting.
State Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, is pushing ahead and expects to introduce a bill soon.
"Right now it's been underground and there are people doing it already," Chamberlain said, referring to sports betting.
He compared betting to the stock market. "It's perfectly safe. It's not like drinking booze or smoking marijuana. It's like investing. They have opinions, and they want to invest based on those opinions," Chamberlain said.
Through a spokeswoman, Walz said he's open to it, but only if advocates craft a deal with the state's Indian tribes, which are a key Walz constituency.
Chamberlain said he wants to work with tribal interests: "We certainly want to get them involved, protect their interests and provide a new business marketing opportunity for them," he said.
But Chamberlain, who has enlisted Democratic state Sen. Karla Bigham, D-Cottage Grove, as an ally, said he also would require any deal to include a capacity for mobile gambling and competition from other operators. Those will be difficult negotiating points with tribal gambling interests.
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, another advocate of legalized sports betting, said backers will have to get the key players on the same page, meaning the state's pro sports teams, Indian gambling interests and Minnesota's robust charitable gambling community, whose proceeds from games of chance go to good causes.
Professional sports leagues have weighed in at legislative hearings around the country, eager to share in any gambling windfall from wagers on their games.
The National Basketball Association, in 2018 testimony to the Missouri Legislature, advocated for legal betting as a way to properly regulate what is still a black market activity in most states, with a value estimated in the billions.
Garofalo said he's confident sports betting will be legal in the near future.
"When public opinion is leaning one way and pro sports teams want something, it usually happens," he said.
But opposition from other quarters will be fierce.
Jake Grassel, a spokesman for Citizens Against Gambling Expansion, said he's already finding allies in both parties in the House and Senate.
Legalizing sports betting will be accompanied by massive marketing campaigns that will remove the taboo against it, while a black market will continue to exist alongside the regulated one, Grassel argued. The result, he said, would be a steep increase in the number of young people betting on sports.
Al Lund, executive director of Allied Charities of Minnesota, said he fears more access to gambling via smartphones and other devices will lead to an "exponential" increase in problem and pathological gambling.
J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042