Gubernatorial Race Shows Course For Tennessee Sports Betting
A recent debate between Tennessee Democratic candidates for governor touched on sports betting. The candidates’ answers, as well as Republican positions on the same topic, lay out the obstacles and opportunities sports betting faces in the state.
Speaking at a debate July 23, Democrats Karl Dean and Craig Fitzhugh both offered support for sports gambling. Their arguments differed but combined they laid out the primary benefits and rationale a growing number of states have expressed as they move towards legalized wagers.
Dean, a former Nashville mayor and the frontrunner in most polls, said sports betting reminded him of the trajectory the state took when approaching the lottery. Though Tennessee laws banned the lottery, lost revenues from Tennesseans crossing into other states to play helped motivate Volunteer State lawmakers to get behind it. In the debate, he said sports betting, like the lottery, may take a while for adoption but that he expects it to be “front in center” in the coming year.
The minority leader of the Tennessee House of Representatives, Fitzhugh said sports betting was one of the few potential untapped revenue sources for the state. He said taxes could be reallocated toward education and could be a way to bolster teacher salaries, an important discussion topic in Nashville and across statehouses nationwide.
The fears of lost revenues to neighboring states and the opportunity to bolster underfunded government programs have been two significant motivators for other states that have expanded gambling options, including in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania. While those states, and most early adopters of sports betting, have been more progressive when it comes to all forms of gambling, last Sunday’s debate shows even more traditionally conservative states understand the benefits.
Tennessee Has Long Way To Go
In the same debate, the two candidates laid out the major obstacles gambling still faces. If either Democrat is elected to the governor’s mansion, they would still have to get approval from the state legislature and possibly even the state supreme court.
State laws restrict most forms of gambling, and Tennessee is one of only a handful of states without any casinos. However, lawyers in the state are not sure if the state constitution would explicitly ban wagers on sports as it never specifically mentions “gambling.” The difference between a ban in state legislation or from the state constitution could be the difference between state lawmakers merely passing a law or the need for a statewide approval for a constitutional amendment from voters.
In the latter scenario, sports gambling would face an even more significant legalization challenge then it would in Nashville. Either way, Dean said the state needs to at least determine what the legal requirements so it can begin to look at sports betting more closely.
Dean also brought up a hurdle facing both scenarios: Tennessee’s overall reluctance to expand any “vice” industry. One of the most recent states in the nation to institute a lottery, It wasn’t until earlier this year that the state just allowed liquor stores to open on Sundays. “This is not going to be a quick fix for the state of Tennessee,” Dean said at the debate.
That’s not to mention the difficulty of a gambling-favorable candidate winning.
Of the top four Republicans in the polls, only House Speaker Beth Harwell hasn’t come out against sports betting, saying in a debate last month “she wouldn’t veto” a bill if it was deemed legal by the state supreme court and passed by the state legislature. Harwell has trailed in most major polls against three other opponents: Congresswoman Diane Black, former economic development commissioner Randy Boyd and businessman Bill Lee. All three have opposed sports gambling.
Republicans currently have control of the governor’s office, both chambers of the state legislature, both senate seats and seven of nine House of Representative Districts. Most polling in hypothetical matchups shows any of the Republicans defeating either Democratic nominee.
Regardless of who takes office, the state may take on sports betting sooner than it anticipates. Kentucky will discuss legislation next year and Mississippi is set to take its first bet in the coming days.
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