Montana looks at legal sports betting

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Add Montana to the long list of states considering legalized sports betting.

Kalispell Republican Sen. Mark Blasdel recently introduced a bill to the state Legislature that would legalize betting on college and professional sports at self-served kiosks placed inside casinos or bars with a full liquor license. Wagering with mobile apps also would be allowed, as long as itís done at a licensed sports betting location. Betting would be limited to people 18 years and older.

Blasdelís proposal comes after the Supreme Court struck down a federal law last year that made most sports gambling illegal. Eight states quickly took advantage, and Montana is now one of 22 other states considering some form of legalized betting, including our neighbors in North Dakota and South Dakota.

Under Blasdelís bill, the state Department of Justice would oversee the betting process and the state would take in revenue from an 8.5 percent tax on wagers placed. A fiscal note on the bill estimates that Montana would garner about $2 million in revenue in each of the first three years.

Pardon the pun, but itíd be ill-advised for the state to leave that kind of money on the table.

Montana already allows casinos and has a lottery, so itís not as if sports betting will swing the stateís moral compass in a wildly new direction. The truth is, sports betting is already happening here. Why not regulate and tax the activity for the benefit of all Montanans?

A recent report from the American Gaming Association estimates that Americans placed bets on some 70 million NCAA basketball tournament brackets this month. At an average of $29 wagered, that totals about $10.4 billion bet on this one tournament alone.

Thatís a lot of cheddar, and Montana should move to get in on the action. Revenue from legal sportsbooks could help keep property taxes down or stave off talk of a state sales tax.

We can look to the Montana Lottery as an example of a program that works. Created in 1986, it has returned about $259 million to the state over the past three decades. Currently that money is earmarked to go in the stateís general fund. Sports betting revenue from Blasdelís bill would go into the general fund as well.

Blasdelís proposal passed the Finance and Claims Committee on a 15 to 4 vote on Friday. Separately, the Montana House has endorsed a bill that would legalize sports betting and put the Montana Lottery in charge of the operation, with profits going to the state treasury and education scholarships.

Either way, weíre glad to see the conversation is moving forward, and we encourage our legislators to take a hard look at the benefits of regulating and collecting revenue from legal sportsbooks. Itís a bet worth making.

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