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Okla. legislation to legalize sports betting expected

OKLAHOMA CITY — Don’t expect sports betting to be legal in Oklahoma in time for the start of the upcoming college football, NFL or NBA seasons.

While New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Mississippi are reportedly moving quickly to implement sports betting, Oklahoma lawmakers are taking a more contemplative approach in a state with more than three dozen federally recognized tribes. Legislators are considering what new rules and regulations are necessary to protect consumers and what role those sovereign nations should play.

Oklahoma lawmakers don’t anticipate returning for special session to hash out the issue, but say there’s a high probability that legislation to legalize sports betting will be introduced during the 2019 session.

“I don’t think we’re anywhere to close to (quick implementation),” said state Rep. Mike Sanders, R-Kingfisher, who also serves as the House Majority Leader. “Before anything like this is passed through, you’ve got to have the infrastructure in place and the regulations.”

Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act — which has been in place since 1992 — is unconstitutional. The federal law barred most states from allowing sports wagering.

The ruling now leaves it to state legislatures to decide whether they want to end existing state bans and try to capitalize on the billions illegally wagered each year.

The American Sports Betting Coalition estimates that as much as $150 billion a year is illegally wagered on sports.

In a statement, American Gaming Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman called the Supreme Court decision “a victory.” Through efficient regulation, there will be new protections for consumers, preservation of sporting integrity and new revenue for states and sporting bodies, he said.

The American Gaming Association represents the $240 billion U.S. casino industry.

“(The) ruling makes it possible for states and sovereign tribal nations to give Americans what they want: an open, transparent and responsible market for sports betting,” Freeman said.

Sports betting, though, will remain illegal in Oklahoma unless the Legislature changes the law.

“We’d be naïve if we didn’t believe that sports betting is already happening within our borders right now,” said Senate Floor Majority Leader Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City.

But Treat said he’s hesitant to expand gaming without a solid path forward.

Lawmakers, though, say they plan to start holding discussions about the best path toward legalization.

They’ll also have to decide whether Oklahoma’s Native American tribes should be granted exclusive rights to the wagering. Through existing compacts, tribes already have substantial exclusivity when it comes to other forms of gaming in Oklahoma.

“There are some within the tribal arena that believe that the compacts give them exclusivity on all forms of gaming,” Treat said. “I’ve yet to be convinced of that, though I am still researching it.”

Professional football, basketball and baseball leagues have all expressed interest in making money off legalized betting, Sanders said.

“I don’t know if the Legislature would give special rights or exclusive rights to the tribal casinos,” Sanders said. “I don’t think that’s a fight you’re wanting to pick, especially with the Thunder here in Oklahoma City.”

But Bill Lance, secretary of commerce for the Chickasaw Nation, which runs the Riverwind and WinStar casinos, told The Norman Transcript earlier this week that his tribe wants to work with the state to facilitate sports betting.

“We look forward to working with the state of Oklahoma on a compacting supplement to address sports pool, which is something that could be easily implemented along the lines of what the Oklahoma Legislature made room for with respect to ‘ball and dice’ games this past session,” Lance said. “We believe such a step would be critical to protecting and enhancing the tribal gaming market that already provides substantial fiscal benefits to Oklahoma, the gaming tribes and all Oklahomans.”

Sanders said there’s no way to know how much money sport betting could generate for the state. He anticipates some gamblers will always continue to wager illegally.

“If someone can tell you how much money that is going to bring to the state, they’re lying to you because nobody knows,” Sanders said.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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