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Time for sports wagering? You bet

The next step in Maryland’s march to offer more gambling unanimously passed the state Senate on Tuesday. The bill could clear the way for Maryland to legalize retail and online sports betting at its six casinos, three horse racing tracks and maybe even FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins.

If, as expected, a cross-filed bill passes the House — by at least a two-thirds vote of Maryland’s 141 delegates — then the issue would be put to the state’s voters for referendum this November. That’s because legislation that would amend the Maryland Constitution is not advanced by a simple majority.

We think it’s a great idea for the people to decide, so we urge the House to garner at least 94 votes to move sports gambling along. The hearing on that bill is next Thursday. We also think voters should pass the initiative in the general election so such legal betting can be added to the state’s constitution, for a couple of reasons.

One obvious reason is for the revenue. Democrats in particular are scrambling to cobble together tax money to pay for implementing a possible public school metamorphosis stemming from the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations. That would be expensive, by The Baltimore Sun’s reckoning. Its estimate was $2.8 billion annually from the state at the program’s full phase-in of the Kirwan plan, with another $1.2 billion coming from all local governments combined. The proposed legislation would tax the official dozen or so gambling venues at the rate of 20%, with 95% of that levy going to educational funding and 5% to the Minority Business Enterprise program.

One of the senators backing the bill forecast the revenue from legalized sports betting here could be $20 million to $40 million for the first year. Even so, the contribution toward schools would be a drop in the bucket compared to what the Kirwan implementation would cost, but every little bit counts (relatively speaking).

And let’s make sure that money does go to schools. The original promise of a state lottery in 1973 was to guarantee improvements to schools and roads. Maryland’s record of ensuring both has been spotty.

Another reason the time has come for legalized sports betting here is that it would seem hypocritical now not to embrace another form of gambling. In addition to the lottery and keno (added nearly 30 years ago), casinos were approved by referendum in 2008, and the first such establishment was built two years later. Now there are six, spanning from Ocean City to Western Maryland, and they are raking it in.

So when it comes to another means to separate Marylanders and tourists from their hard-earned money, the horse has left the barn. Moreover, the horse has left the barn, run around the track and is cooling off in the paddock.

Look around. In the greater mid-Atlantic region, only Maryland doesn’t permit sports betting. Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and West Virginia already have it, as does D.C. technically (although no one can place a bet in Washington yet, because its year-old experiment has been bogged down with bureaucratic trouble). The trump card in this hand, though, is Virginia, which passed legalized sports betting near the end of its legislative session this month. Now we’re surrounded.

The impetus now for Maryland is obvious: Offer sports betting for people here, or our neighbors will happily take their money. If it’s online, they’ll get the revenue. If it’s in a brick-and-mortar venue, they’ll also reap the profits from restaurant, bar and hotel spending.

Folks definitely have a taste for it. New Jersey handled more than $4.5 billion in online and in-person sports bets last year, and raised more than $36 million in taxes in 2019. A big part of New Jersey’s success has been creating a framework that allows the online sports betting market to grow. That state boasts 13 race tracks and casinos, and allows up to three mobile sportsbook brands per casino for a total of 39 different operators. Each sports wagering licensee may provide no more than three individually branded websites.

For Maryland, one or two online sports books for each casino or horse track might not be sufficient to handle the burgeoning appetite for sports betting. Making more licenses available means more competition, more room for growth and better options for consumers. More such competition also means more money for the state in licensing fees and taxes on gaming revenue.

Also, college sports should be part of the betting picture (and is part of the legislation). Americans already bet billions on college football and basketball games through unregulated offshore websites. One estimate says that at least a million Marylanders will place bets on “March Madness,” the NCAA men’s basketball tournament that tips off in less than two weeks.

Why shouldn’t the state — and by extension, its schools — get a taste of that betting money? Let’s have the people decide come November.