By JENNIFER McDERMOTT, The Associated Press
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island lawmakers approved a bill Tuesday to allow sports betting to move online, sending it to the governor’s desk.
Rhode Island is the only New England state that allows sports betting, but currently bets must be placed in person at the Twin River casinos in Lincoln and Tiverton.
Democratic Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello want to expand sports betting to generate revenue and make the betting more convenient.
The governor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 counts on $30 million from sports betting, including $3 million from mobile gambling.
The bill allows for the creation of an app that people could use to access the sports betting offerings at Twin River Casino. Anyone placing a bet would have to be physically present in Rhode Island at the time of their wager.
House Republicans introduced an amendment to ask for a court opinion on whether lawmakers can authorize mobile gambling without asking voters first. They contend that because sports betting was banned when voters approved gambling at the Twin River Casino in Lincoln in 2012 and in Tiverton in 2016, it’s unclear whether that approval allows for sports betting, too. It was defeated.
Rhode Island legalized and launched sports betting after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law last year that made most sports gambling illegal.
“I support this type of gaming. I don’t support moving ahead when there are substantial questions about its legality,” said Republican Rep. Blake Filippi, the House minority leader. “I think we should be asking for an advisory opinion from the Rhode Island Supreme Court before we build our budget around it and invest in the technology.”
Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell says the state should seek voter approval, and he’s considering suing.
Ruggerio, meanwhile, said the legal advice he has seen states that voters approved sports betting when they approved casino gambling, and he’s confident Rhode Island would prevail in any challenge.
Democratic Rep. Joe Shekarchi, the House majority leader, said the bill doesn’t expand gambling, it provides a new way of doing it to keep up with current technology. Shekarchi represents a district in Warwick.
Some House Democrats said they’re concerned offering mobile gambling could lead to more problem gambling. Democratic Rep. Teresa Tanzi, of Narragansett, said the state needs to ensure residents are safeguarded and dedicate revenue from sports betting to help problem gamblers.
“We’re not really having our eyes fully opened as we embark down this road,” she said.
Democratic Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, of Jamestown, said she’d like to work on separate consumer protection legislation, but she supports mobile gambling because the state shouldn’t deny the right to gamble or try to “legislate commonsense.” Democratic Rep. Anastasia Williams, of Providence, said “change is here” and she doesn’t want gambling revenue going to other states.
“We need this and we need this now,” Williams said.
The House approved the Senate president’s bill to allow online sports wagering, which the Senate passed in February. The House also passed its version of the same bill, introduced by the House speaker. Both passed 64 to 8. Senate spokesman Greg Pare said the Senate would act swiftly to pass the House bill, so both versions could be sent to the governor.