Lawmakers in Tennessee have moved the state one step closer to legalizing sports betting last week. This follows a successful but contentious vote on a Tennessee sports betting bill in the House of Representatives.

Last Wednesday, House Bill 1 passed the House by a 58 to 37 vote. That advanced HB-1 to the state Senate where the Finance committee immediately voted 9-2 to bring sports betting to a full floor vote.

The legislative session in Tennessee is scheduled to end on May 14, so the House will have just over two weeks to discuss and vote on HB-1, along with a companion bill SB-16.

State representative Rick Staples (D-Knoxville) pre-filed HB-1 in November of last year, seven months after the United States Supreme Court ruled to repeal a federal ban on sports betting outside of Nevada.

If passed by the House, and signed off on by Governor Bill Lee, HB-1 would make Tennessee the first state to legalize sports betting exclusively online. As one of only nine states without brick and mortar casinos, the bill was originally written to allow in-person wagering at up to 50 retail locations through self-service kiosks.

But after a combative back and forth between Tennessee sports betting bill supporters and conservatives opposed to all forms of gambling, an amendment was added limiting wagers to licensed online / mobile platforms only.

Opponents Remain Against Tennessee Sports Betting Bill

During a hearing held by the House Finance Ways and Means Committee earlier this month, state representative Andy Holt (R-76) outlined the opposition’s reasoning for voting against the Tennessee sports betting bill:

“I think the legislature is pouring fuel on the addiction issues in our state. I’ve seen family members who don’t have money to feed their kids because they blew it on stuff like this. If we really want to talk about helping kids, this bill won’t do it.”

But before Holt could engage in constructive debate with his colleagues, the controversial lawmaker – best known for refusing to cancel an AR-15 raffle in the wake of a mass shooting and calling for multimillion-dollar fines on the city of Memphis for removing Confederate monuments – attempted to derail the proceedings.

Speaking directly to Staples – one of only 17 black legislators elected to the 132-member General Assembly – Holt compared the regulation of sportsbooks to slavery:

“Well, I personally believe – and I think there are others on this committee who believe – that this legislation has been rushed through. I believe that the potential ramifications of this legislation are life altering. I believe that this leads down a path toward, in essence, slavery – slavery to an addiction. The state is playing into that addiction, unfortunately.”

Staples responded by ignoring the remark in favor of citing the due diligence lawmakers undertook before voting, including seven weeks of discussion within the subcommittee Holt chairs.

During the full House hearing, state representative Jerry Sexton (R-35) called for divine intervention should the Senate pass HB-1:

“I hope to God that Governor Bill Lee will veto this bill if it does pass.”

State representative Glen Casada (R-63), who serves as Speaker of the House, responded by citing the proliferation of offshore online sports betting in unregulated markets like Tennessee:

“At least this way, there’s some regulation and some oversight into it, versus right now, it’s done without those things.”

But Sexton remained unconvinced, telling Casada that gamblers shouldn’t be shielded by consumer protections extended by the government:

“If they want to gamble, let them gamble. We don’t need to be getting in the gambling business. Why don’t we set up a casino right out here in the state lobby? Have some slot machines in it? Why don’t we just start gambling here? I thought state government was supposed to be for the people and watching out for them.”

Tennessee Joins Several Southern & Midwestern States

Sports betting legalization has largely been relegated to the Northeast region, but Tennessee is the latest state in the South and Midwest to make progress.

Last week, the Iowa Legislature sent a sports betting bill to the Governor’s desk for final consideration.

Governors in Indiana and Montana are also set to either sign or veto sports betting bills, while legislation is gaining momentum in Colorado, Illinois, and Louisiana.

Jonathan Zaun

One of Gamble Online's first dedicated reporters, Jonathan has spent well over a decade reporting on the gaming industry. While breaking legal news is his main area of expertise, Jonathan is an avid blackjack player & strategist who follows professional poker closely.

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