Michael Sirotkin
Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, supports legalized sports gambling. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Senate unanimously approved Friday setting up a study committee to investigate how the state could tax and regulate sports betting in Vermont. 

When Gov. Phil Scott proposed legalizing sports betting and keno, a bingo-like betting game, in January in his budget address, the idea was met with mixed reactions among lawmakers. While Scott highlighted the potential revenue, others were concerned legalized gambling was profiting from some people’s addictions. 

The bill, S.59, passed second reading in the Senate. After a final vote, it will head to the House, where a key committee chair said it was not a priority before the Legislature recesses by the end of June. 

Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, told fellow senators that sports betting is already happening in the state, unregulated and with no financial gain for Vermont. 

“Many of the bets being placed in Vermont now are going to our neighboring states and into other countries, including a lot of sites in Canada,” Sirotkin said, the bill’s main sponsor.

“If we want to move sports betting to a legalized, regulated and tax approach,” he continued, “we need more information about the real world track record of this activity and our own analysis of our different ways to structure a tax and regulated system.”

Sirotkin also estimated legalized sports betting could bring the state between $1 million to $10 million a year in tax revenue. 

Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, raised concerns the study committee did not include any experts who specialize in addiction. The proposed committee would come from recommendations from the attorney general, the secretary of state, tax commissioner, the liquor and lottery commissioner, and the head of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

She also if the committee would assess whether college or non-professional sports would be included in regulated betting models; Sirotkin said it may be too soon for the committee to address that question.

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Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington — who has supported legislation in the past with Sirotkin to legalize sports betting in the state — said that in his initial proposal he wanted to exclude college sports from gambling. But because the industry is already so established in the betting world, particularly with the NCAA basketball March Madness, it would be difficult for the state to exclude them. 

“What one of the considerations should be is whether or not we would not allow gambling on Vermont college sports,” Sears said. “And also not allow gambling on any event that involves minors, so it would cover high schools and so forth.” 

In an interview, Sears said he thinks it’s important for the state to embark on the study now. He also said legalization profits wouldn’t come close to filling the shortfalls the state is seeing due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Sears said it’s time for Vermont to understand the “reality” of sports betting in the state. He said he’s frustrated that Vermonters will be betting on horse racing remotely this summer — as crowds have been disbanded at tracks like Saratoga Springs — but the state won’t see any profits. 

“I would hope the House doesn’t put it on the wall and wait,” Sears said. “The quicker we get some kind of consensus regarding the study committee and provide some direction the better off we’ll be.”

The bill would likely head to the House General and Military Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury. Stevens, who opposes the concept of legalized sports betting in the state because he thinks it “preys on the poor,” said he’s not sure now is the right time for the study committee to be rushed forward. 

“I don’t know if this is the right time for it. At a time when many Vermonters are losing their jobs or just on the edge, precariously financed. And when sports aren’t being played, I’m not sure this is something we need to consider too quickly,” Stevens said.

“But I won’t say no.” 

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