The fate of legal sports betting in Tennessee remains in question as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle raise concerns with a bill that would allow online sports gambling.
A bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. Rick Staples, D-Knoxville — the first piece of legislation that was filed in the House this session — is facing resistance in the House State Committee while the Senate Government Operations Committee has delayed taking any action.
Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, introduced the Senate version of the bill, SB 16.
The legislation initially sought to allow both online sports betting and the operation of brick-and-mortar sports gambling facilities in the state. But Staples, who says Tennessee has lost $3 billion to other states with legal gambling, amended it to remove the provision for in-person betting.
What would still put Tennessee in a unique position, Staples said, is that neither Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama nor Georgia have legal online gambling, and users would have to enter the state to be able to cast sports bets on the participating websites.
Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville, was among the Democrats on the committee who voiced objections to Staples’ bill.
Powell unsuccessfully attempted to add multiple amendments to the legislation — including allowing the state’s four major cities to hold referendums to permit brick-and-mortar betting businesses, reducing the sports betting licensing fee from $750,000 to $75,000, and prohibiting betting on Sundays.
But his failed amendments still drew support from a number of fellow committee members, eventually prompting lawmakers to defer taking action on the bill for another week.
Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, expressed moral concerns with gambling, specifically with the potential for young athletes falling prey to offers to fix a game. Gov. Bill Lee has also said he is morally opposed to legalizing gambling.
“I think we’re moving down the wrong path when we start legalizing gambling online,” Shaw said. “Folks are going to be sitting up in church on Sunday and everywhere else they’re going to be playing.
“Some things we just don’t do, and money is not everything. The state of Tennessee, if we can save one person, it’s much more important than making a million dollars, is the way I see this.”
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Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, said he was “not quite there” on supporting the bill, and would be voting against it.
“My district will not allow me to vote in favor of this piece of legislation,” Hawk said.
Rep. Rush Bricken, R-Tullahoma, decried the lack of funding the state has set aside to treat individuals suffering from gambling addictions, noting that Tennessee currently spends less than 3 cents per person each year, which he described as significantly less than the national average among other states.
“It would be remiss for us to get this legislation all the way through without serious additional money for gambling addiction,” Bricken said.
Charles Armistead, an anti-gambling advocate who previously opposed the formation of the Tennessee lottery, likened legalizing gambling to legalizing addicting drugs.
“If this legislation is approved … our legislature will be peddling the equivalent of cocaine,” Armistead said.
Staples defended himself from the “assumptions about the nefarious intent of this piece of legislation,” explaining that he had witnessed his first murder at age 14 over a drug dispute.
“I would never do anything to be as low as to bring something that could be equated to crack cocaine,” Staples said.
Under Staples’ amended bill, the state lottery commission would regulate sports betting in Tennessee and receive 85 percent of taxes coming from the businesses, with the remaining 15 percent being dispersed among local government entities.
The bill is scheduled to be heard again in the committee April 2.
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