Massachusetts Special Commission Set to Recommend iGaming for 2018 Passage

Just over nine months after its creation, Massachusetts’ Special Commission on Online Gaming, Fantasy Sports Gaming, and Daily Fantasy Sports is reportedly on the verge of recommending full iGaming legalization to the state’s legislature.

Per a report published by State House News Service on June 6, the Special Commission “has been studying the ever-changing world of online gaming and gambling (and) may be poised to recommend an all-inclusive approach to regulating the multifaceted industry.”

With a July 31 deadline to deliver its official findings looming, the nine-member panel of legislators, regulators, and industry experts appears to have formed a consensus on the once contentious issue of regulated online gambling.

Representative Joseph Wagner (D-Chicopee) – who serves as chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies and co-chair of the Special Commission – told State House News Service that the debate now boils down to choosing the best method for eventual iGaming implementation:

“There are three options I think that we will look at.

There’s the gaming option, a type of structure where we have a separate law that would govern this; the omnibus approach, which is where we would give some authority some authority to oversee all of this; or to just simply let it play out for some time or more going forward.”

The Massachusetts Legislature embarked on an ambitious overhaul of the state’s gambling industry beginning in 2011, with the passage of the Expanded Gambling Act calling for the construction of three resort-style casinos.

By 2015 the state’s Attorney General instituted new policies to regulate the daily fantasy sports (DFS) industry, prompting further legislative discussion on the matter of full iGaming legalization. Those discussions eventually led the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) to form a Special Commission tasked with studying the industry’s viability.

Along with Wagner, the Special Commission is co-chaired by state senator Eileen Donoghue (D-Lowell). Other members include MGC chairman Stephen Crosby, state senator Jennifer Flanagan (D-Worcester and Middlesex), representative Mark Cusack (D-Norfolk), representative James Kelcourse (R-Essex), assistant attorney general Dan Krockmalnic, senatorial legal counsel Hirak Shah, and chairman of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA) Peter Schoenke.

As a proponent of the omnibus approach, which would regulate all forms of iGaming under the same umbrella, Crosby commented on the need for centralized third-party oversight – either through the MGC or another body:

“Our view is that the Legislature’s job is to determine whether or not we want gambling online to be legal, and if the answer to that is yes – which it sort of presumptively appears to be – then come up with a regulatory environment that can deal with all of these things as they come down the pike and not have to try to be in a reactive mode.

And it could be the Gaming Commission, that makes a lot of sense. Though if it goes to somebody else it’s totally fine with us, we’re not invested in it one way or another.

Then give that agency really clear parameters of protection, what needs to be attended to for all these new gambling processes online, give them the ability to regulate and with the nimbleness and speed that is required.”

Bills which would’ve legalized online casinos, poker rooms, DFS contests, and lottery sales were introduced during the 2017 legislative session, but progress stalled in the Senate. The issue was essentially punted to next year, pending the Special Commission’s final recommendation report on July 31.

Chief among the reasons for this year’s delay is the integration of Massachusetts’ new land-based casino industry.

The state’s first brick and mortar gambling venue, Plainridge Park Casino, opened its doors in June of 2015, while the MGM Springfield and Wynn Boston Harbor casino resorts are scheduled to open in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Crosby commented on the importance of working with the state’s newest gambling industry stakeholders, especially given the success of New Jersey’s use of land-based casinos as license holders and operators:

“If there is going to be a major change in the gaming world … the bricks and mortar people have to be attended to. Wynn is putting down $2.4 billion, MGM is putting in $1 billion and their economic interests, just to be fair, should be seriously considered.

Probably, we would think that online casino gaming – and we’ve got a definitional problem here – online casino gaming probably should be anchored in the bricks and mortar casinos.”

Special Commission members must deliver written opinions to co-chairs Wagner and Donoghue by June 16, while a final public meeting will be held at some point between now and July 31.