Rhode Island was the latest state to launch legal sports betting in November of last year, but as of now, wagering is limited to a pair of brick and mortar casino sportsbooks. That could change at any time, however, following the state Senate’s conclusive passage of a bill which seeks to add online wagering to the Rhode Island sports betting landscape.
Senate Bill 37 was first passed in February by a 31 to 4 vote in the Senate. On March 12, the lower House of Representatives recorded a similarly definitive 64 to 8 vote.
State senator Dominick Ruggerio (D-4) – who serves as President of the state Senate – spearheaded the bill’s passage as lead sponsor. Speaking to 12 WPRI Eyewitness News, Ruggerio outlined how the launch of live sportsbooks compelled lawmakers to explore online wagering:
“The new in-person sportsbook that opened in November has been very popular, with lines sometimes stretching out the doors.
It is an entertainment option that many Rhode Islanders enjoy, and visitors from outside the state are also flocking to our gaming facilities to place their wagers on sporting events.”
If and when Governor Gina Raimondo signs off on the bill, the Rhode Island Lottery would be tasked with overseeing regulation and licensure of online sportsbooks.
Raimondo included Rhode Island sports betting revenue in the state’s 2019 budget, before signing a bill directing the Lottery to supervise sports betting within the state’s two Twin River casino venues.
Following that model, online / mobile wagering would only be offered through the Twin Rivers bet shops currently serviced by a combination of William Hill and International Game Technology (IGT)
Bettors would have to visit a Twin River sportsbook – located in the cities of Lincoln and Tiverton – to register their online / mobile account. From there, wagers could be placed from anywhere within Rhode Island state lines.
Despite the bill’s overwhelming margin of victory in the Senate, several state lawmakers seem to believe online / mobile integration isn’t a foregone conclusion.
State representative Blake Filippi (R-36) – who serves as House minority leader – introduced an amendment which would’ve asked the Rhode Island Supreme Court to examine whether online / mobile integration complies with the state constitution’s caveat that gambling expansion must be approved by voters.
Speaking with the Associated Press (AP), Filippi explained the impetus behind his amendment effort:
“I support this type of gaming. I don’t support moving ahead when there are substantial questions about its legality.
I think we should be asking for an advisory opinion from the Rhode Island Supreme Court before we build our budget around it and invest in the technology.”
With the Rhode Island House of Representatives controlled by Democrats courtesy of a 66 to 9 majority, that amendment was soundly defeated in a 62 to 10 vote.
At the heart of the debate is a provision of the state constitution that calls for a voter referendum whenever government attempts “expanding the types of gambling which are permitted within the state or within any city.”
State senator Donna Nesselbush (D-15) told 12 WPRI News that while she voted in favor of the bill, she nonetheless sees certain merits in the constitutionality argument:
“I think smart minds could read the law and the requirements both ways, and because of that I do think that someday it wouldn’t surprise me if the Supreme Court weighs in on it.”
Brandon Bell – the Chairman of Rhode Island’s Republican Party and a practicing attorney based in Providence – has gone on record as saying a constitutionality lawsuit could be in the works.
For his part, Ruggiero has insisted in interviews with local media that online / mobile wagering doesn’t technically constitute an “expansion” of gaming:
“It’s really not an expansion of sports betting, it’s just a different method of wagering.”
House majority leader state representative Joe Shekarchi (D-23) echoed those sentiments by telling reporters that online sportsbooks are simply a technological upgrade.