Ohio sports gambling bill due in weeks, in second try at Statehouse

A second sports gambling bill for Ohio is expected in the state's Senate committees in as little as two weeks, as legislators take another crack at legalizing an industry earning hundreds of millions of dollars for surrounding states.

How long it takes to become law and enable sports bettors in the state remains to be seen, with most estimates falling around the end of the year.

Sen. Kirk Schuring (R-Jackson Twp) said Wednesday he expected a bill within "the next couple weeks," as he wrapped up the last of nine hearings in the Senate Select Committee on Gaming. The select committee has been finding any free time it can since the new legislative session began in January, hearing from dozens of witnesses on whether Ohio should legalize sports betting, how it should be regulated and taxed, and where its earnings should go in the state's budget.

Currently, Michigan, Indiana, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania all have some form of legal sports betting, estimated to draw hundreds of millions in gaming profits across state lines each year.

"Of course, it depends how well the bettors do," said sports gaming analyst Jeff Edelstein, who watched the hearings and writes for sportshandle.com.

"In other states, the skins are given to individual casinos and they in turn partner with online sportsbooks. They pay what ends up being a tax as low as 8%, to as high as Pennsylvania which is 35% or 36%," Edelstein said Friday.

Ohio began the process of legalizing sports gambling in earnest during 2019 after a Supreme Court decision the year prior cleared the way for states to regulate the industry. The various attempts all since failed to cross the legislative finish line in 2020, as lawmakers could not decide whether the Ohio Lottery or the Ohio Casino Control Commission should run the regulatory side.

On Wednesday, a third entity was proposed as a regulatory body, further complicating matters. The Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association, advocating for Ohio's eight harness tracks, proposed that its own regulator run the state's sports gambling industry as an off-shoot of its successful racetrack betting program.

The Ohio State Racing Commission, however, would need a lot of help getting off the ground.

"The Commission is underfunded and doesn't have the staff for regulation enforcement of sports wagering," said Renee Mancino, executive director of the Harness Horsemen's Association. "Sports wagering licensing fees and taxation should help to fund an OSRC expansion."

Edelstein was cold on the proposal in his analysis.

"No other state is doing it that way," he said. "I'd be surprised if Ohio went that route. I think the main route is let the Lottery be in charge of it, or let the casinos basically be in charge; if I were a betting man, I'm betting they go the casino route."

Mancino also proposed that the state roll lottery, casinos and horse racing bodies into one mega-enforcement agency, which she said has occurred in other states.

In considering the nine hearings' worth of testimony, Sen. Cecil Thomas (D-Cincinnati) said Friday that he hopes to apply best practices from those surrounding states, on matters like tax rates, how much of the earnings to devote to gambling addiction services, and whether to devote the lion's share of profits to the state's general fund, education or some other purpose.

"The first hurdle is to put the regulatory process in place...we want to get something done by June 30th," said Sen. Thomas. "That's a stretch because we've also got a budget; we'd have to include it in the budget.

"I'm not saying that's not do-able. I'm on board," Thomas said. "We are way behind in getting this done."

Sen. Thomas expected a law could get done and a regulatory process installed by the end of 2021, even as other states and offshore internet betting sites continue sucking the gambling profits outside the Buckeye State.

Edelstein, who has covered state sports gambling laws for several years, said the timeline could be more aggressive if the legislature is so inclined.

"I'm really going to qualify it here: it's reasonable to say that there's potential, you could be betting on the NFL at some this coming season in Ohio," Edelstein said.

Further discussions will surround whether betting on college sports should be allowed in the state, a move Edelstein called a no-brainer as other states and entities will welcome action on The Ohio State Buckeyes football team and other universities in Ohio.