Facing long odds, advocates of legalized sports betting must make decision

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The odds of legalizing sports gambling in Minnesota appear to be long in 2019, and one advocate says it’s time to compromise with Native American tribes that have thrown up a major roadblock.

The Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, an 11-member group of tribes that operates 19 casinos, has said it opposes any off-reservation gambling. That’s important because many sports wagers happen on smartphones and computers. 

Supporters of sports betting now face a key decision: do they push forward with a full legalization despite opposition from the tribes, or allow limited wagering only on tribal lands?

“Certainly, if the choice is, if we keep everything illegal or if we do things just on-site, some is better than none,” said state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. “This is not the kind of thing that the Legislature can just jam down people’s throats. There has to be consensus among the stakeholders. Absent that, it’s not going to happen.”

John McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, said that allowing wagers to take place only on tribal land was not a lasting solution.

Continuing to ban wagers from smartphones and computers would mean less money for casino operators while allowing the illegal, underground sports gambling industry to continue.

In a letter to Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders, the gaming association said the issue deserved further study instead of action in the 2019 legislative session.

“The Minnesota Indian Gaming Association continues to oppose the expansion of off-reservation gambling, including the legalization of sports betting,” wrote Charles Vig, the organization’s chairman.

Garofalo said he was not sure when a bill legalizing sports gambling would be introduced this session. It’s unclear who would be the lead sponsor in the DFL-controlled House.

Walz has endorsed legalized sports betting, saying in a Jan. 16 news conference that he first wanted a full legislative debate.

“I think adults can do this in a manner that’s responsible,” Walz told reporters. “We should figure out as a state how we’re going to do that. And I think if the Legislature chooses to take this up, we’re certainly interested in working with them to get it right.”

Eight states have legalized sports betting, while Arkansas and the District of Columbia appear headed toward legalization.

In New Jersey, which legalized sports betting midway through 2018 after being at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the issue, the state has already seen $1 billion in wagers, Garofalo said.

The main incentive is not increased tax revenue to the state, he said.

“The primary benefit is defunding criminal enterprises” that are funded by some illegal sports betting operations, Garofalo said.