Legalized betting on sports is coming; let’s get it right

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It’s a good bet that Maine is going to join the growing list of states that allow gambling on sports.

I don’t like gambling. It’s too hard to make money to give it away to someone else for a few minutes of excitement.

Generally speaking, I don’t think it’s good economic development, although it’s hard to argue with the revitalization of Bangor’s waterfront that was sparked by the addition of a casino.

But I also recognize the mistakes of the past.

Maine has never managed the expansion of gaming in the state well. For many years, gambling opponents — including my old boss, Gov. John Baldacci — were able to hold the expansion of gambling at bay.

Ultimately, however, the state ended up with limited casino gambling, and public policy was largely set by referendum. The process shut out Maine’s Native American communities and led to a series of political fights over further expansion, the latest of which was hit with a record fine from the Maine Commission on Government Ethics and Election Practices.

Maine has a chance to do better this time, and the Legislature appears to be taking its responsibility seriously.

The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee has consolidated a number of competing bills as the baseline for creating regulations. So far, there’s been little organized opposition and Senate President Troy Jackson is among the leaders seeking a thoughtful regulatory framework.

We know that the unregulated — and illegal sports book — is already here. One of the big stories in Portland last year was the arrest of Stephen Mardigan, who pleaded guilty to unlawful gambling, money laundering and filing a false tax return.

It’s time to bring the sports book into the light of day with strict regulations.

As the Legislature works through the details, it’s also important to highlight a piece of the testimony from Milton Champion, who is the executive director of the Maine Gambling Control Unit.

Champion made clear that sports betting is unlikely to produce a revenue windfall for the state. Four of the states that have allowed legalized sports betting since the U.S. Supreme Court made it possible have missed revenue targets. According to the gambling industry, the profit margin on sports betting is tight, around 5 percent before expenses.

The goal of legalizing betting on sports should be to replace illegal book with a legal, regulated alternative that protects consumers and makes investment in gambling addiction services for people who need help.

Here are my recommendations:
— Limit sports gambling to those 21 years old and older;
— Restrict advertising to ensure it doesn’t target kids or people with a problem;
— Build in protections for consumers and help them identify legitimate businesses and avoid being ripped off;
— Include online and mobile wagering;
— And limit the types of bets that can be placed to reduce the risk of tampering. For example, specific bets on individual performance create an incentive for unscrupulous behavior.
If I were king for a day, I would also build in a preference in licensing for Maine’s tribal communities, which have been shut out of gambling in the past.

And I’d start from Day 1 with the recognition that the regulations should include online and mobile betting. I know that in-state players would like the field to themselves, but states that have tried to limit sports betting to just businesses with a brick-and-mortar presence in the state are already reconsidering the decision. Better to get it right the first time.

One final regulatory suggestion: Anyone who bets against the Red Sox or the Patriots should be required to pay an additional 10 percent surcharge — you know, to discourage bad behavior.

Regardless of your feelings on gambling overall, it makes sense to move forward with sports wagering in a thoughtful, steady way that puts the interests of consumers ahead of big investors, the casinos or the internet gambling sites.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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