On May 14, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the federal ban on sports betting – meaning all bets are no longer off when it comes to anything and everything you can classify as a sport.
And while Congress can enact federal regulations, it’s now up to individual states to decide whether to allow sports betting. That’s why it’s important for New Mexico’s leaders to put some thought into this before they roll the dice.
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, has already announced that he’ll push for discussion on sports gambling during interim legislative committees this year, with possible bills to follow during the 2019 session. He describes sports gambling as a “guaranteed profitable industry” and has expressed regret the Legislature didn’t adopt legislation in 2017 or this year in anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling.
That ignores the economics behind the case brought by New Jersey, that it was the Garden State’s casino industry that needed propping up in 2011.
And it ignores the economics behind many of New Mexico’s gamblers – that almost half the state’s residents are on Medicaid, and one in four is on food stamps.
The Supreme Court’s 6-3 majority determined that the federal law banning sports betting in most states was unconstitutional because “it unequivocally dictates what a state legislature may and may not do.” (Nevada, Montana, Delaware and Oregon were exempted from the 1992 ban.) In other words, the federal government was infringing on many states’ rights, in violation of the 10th Amendment.
Yet while opening the window to sports betting in New Mexico is tempting given the additional revenues it could likely generate, state lawmakers and the next governor need to thoroughly vet whom it would generate revenue for, whom it would generate revenue from, and how it would affect not only sports in New Mexico but existing gaming operations.
Among those opposed to legalized betting on sports are the major sports leagues, the NCAA and the Trump administration. The professional sports leagues and the NCAA argue that a gambling expansion would hurt the integrity of their games, and the NFL, NBA and MLB are calling for regulatory framework.
You don’t have to go all the way back to the 1919 Black Sox World Series scandal to see what they’re talking about. Lowlights include Pete Rose being banned from baseball for life for betting on games; Boston College basketball and football and Arizona State and Tulane basketball being rocked by point-shaving scandals, and Northwestern basketball by fixed games; an NBA referee getting 15 months for selling insider tips to gamblers; and an NHL star being sentenced for promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy.
The American Gaming Association says Americans illegally wager about $150 billion on sports each year. One research firm estimates that after the Supreme Court ruling, 32 states will likely allow sports betting within five years.
Among the issues New Mexico lawmakers must explore before allowing sports enthusiasts to place their bets here are:
⋄ Who would be allowed to take bets, and how would the state regulate that?
⋄ How would state compacts with Native American tribes and pueblos be affected if the state were to allow sports betting to occur outside tribal lands?
⋄ What will state officials do to prepare for the likely rise in problem gambling?
The last question deserves particular attention given the fact New Mexico is a poor state with many people who can’t afford to gamble, and too many cases of desperate gambling addicts raiding the wrong coffers (including a secretary of state) or committing suicide (including a public schools business manager). If history is any indication, many of those who can afford it least will bet on games regularly, digging themselves even deeper into a financial hole, sometimes to tragic consequences.
Lia Nower, director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University, told NPR her research has found that most sports bettors in New Jersey are 18 to 34 years old, half of them gambling once a week or more and almost two-thirds of them at high risk of becoming addicted.
“Based on studies that we’ve done, folks that gamble on sports tend to gamble more often and have more problems than the average gambler,” she said. “A lot of legislation throws money at treatment, and my experience has been that by the time people need treatment, there’s already a lot of devastation.”
So while New Mexico, like most other states, could use additional money, state lawmakers and the next governor must do a serious risk-reward analysis before going all-in on sports betting, and they shouldn’t move forward until they’ve figured out how to mitigate at least some of the direct, as well as collateral, damage.
Because sometimes the stakes are just too high.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.