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Proposed sports-betting bills advancing through Montana Legislature

(Report by MTN’s Mike Dennison)

HELENA — Two bills to legalize sports betting in Montana are working their way through the Legislature — and the sponsors said it’s OK with them if both approaches are approved, allowing them to compete for bettors’ business.

“I think it’s an exciting time for sports betting (in Montana),” said Rep. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, whose House Bill 725 would allow the Montana Lottery to offer sports-betting through a contractor. “There are a lot of proposals that are being debated up here, and we’ll see what comes out in the final days.”

The House approved HB725 on an 88-10 vote two weeks ago and the bill had its first hearing in the Senate Wednesday.

Also in the mix is Sen. Mark Blasdel’s Senate Bill 330, under which the state would license private sports-book operators, who would set up kiosks at taverns or other spots already licensed for legalized gambling in Montana.

“I think for the taverns, it’s an exciting thing for them to be able to have another additional way to bring people into their establishments, maybe a different form of customer that they traditionally don’t have,” Blasdel told MTN News. “It’s just a different form of entertainment for people and there’s been a lot of interest in it.”

The Senate approved SB330 last week and the bill is expected on the House floor this week.

Montana is among several states considering legalizing sports betting after the U.S. Supreme Court last spring struck down a federal ban on this type of betting in most states.

Both Blasdel and Lynch said sports betting occurs already in Montana, on the black market, and that if it’s legal, Montana should regulate it and get some revenue from it.

Yet Blasdel said it’s not expected to be a big cash cow for the state, because the payouts in sports betting are relatively high, with as much as 95 percent of the betting revenue going out to winners.

Fiscal analyses of the two bills estimate that they should raise a collective $1.5 million to $2 million a year for the state’s general fund. However, Lynch’s bill, which would run the betting through the state Lottery, also would raise another $3 million to $4 million a year for a school scholarship fund for science and technology learning.

Under Lynch’s HB725, the state Lottery would arrange with its current contractor to offer sports betting at locations that already allow gambling.

Lynch said bettors would go to an establishment that has machines selling Lottery tickets that offer various types of sports betting. Commissions would be paid to the owners of the establishments — usually a tavern or bar.

Blasdel said under his bill, private operators would set up shop at bars or other licensed locales, offering all types of sports bets.

“You can bet on anything from season-long championships, to daily sports, to actual in-game betting, based on plays, and so forth,” he said. “And this is across the board, from every sport, from football to tennis to NASCAR.”

Blasdel’s bill would tax net gaming revenue at 8.5 percent. The Lottery proceeds would not be taxes, but would simply go directly to the state, after paying the contractor and commissions.

Blasdel and Lynch said neither bill has run into much opposition.

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