Andrew Cuomo

Lawmakers continue push for mobile sports betting

Despite a proposal to make mobile sports betting legal falling short in budget talks, legislators want to pass a bill by June.

Could mobile sports betting become legal sooner than we think?

Could mobile sports betting become legal sooner than we think? wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

For months, the Cuomo administration has expressed reservations about mobile sports betting, questioning the revenue potential and whether it would even be constitutional in New York.

“If we want to expand it beyond the land-based casinos, including online, you need a constitutional amendment,” state Budget Director Robert Mujica said in January.

Then, when asked last month why New Yorkers shouldn't be able to bet on sporting events, Cuomo argued that gambling “is not the best revenue raiser.”

Now a key state lawmaker is claiming that the issues are no longer deal-breakers for Cuomo.

Queens state Sen. Joseph Addabbo claims the two concerns fell by the wayside before the budget was finalized. At a meeting held in his Capitol office in the final days of budget talks, Addabbo claims that Mujica said the administration dropped the objections to the proposal.

“They were embracing the constitutionality,” Addabbo said of the administration. “The only hurdle I could not clear was that the governor was looking for the Assembly to be as enthusiastic as I was about sports betting and they were not.”

But a Cuomo spokesman disputed the assertion that its position had shifted. “We have constitutional concerns on this issue that we have raised for nearly a year,” Cuomo spokesman Jason Conwall said in a statement. “Our position remains the same."

In response to the administration’s denial of a change of heart on the issue, Addabbo, who chairs the state Senate Racing, Gaming And Wagering Committee, told City & State this week that he stands by his own “interpretation” of the meeting with Mujica. “But that’s the past,” Addabbo added. “We’ll build upon the conversations we had during the budget.”

Addabbo blamed the Assembly for dooming the legalization of mobile sports betting in the state budget. The Assembly has a history of balking at efforts to expand gambling, as some members are personally opposed to it, and others have tried to keep it out of New York City, or at least Manhattan.

After it wasn’t included in the budget, “Plan B” for Addabbo and other proponents is to pass a bill that would legalize mobile sports betting before the Legislature adjourns in June. Key to that effort is convincing the Assembly to go along with the proposal. But given the chamber’s past opposition to it, that is no sure bet.

A meeting between Addabbo and Assemblyman J. Gary Pretlow, who is carrying the bill in the lower house, met this week to hash out strategy and Addabbo says that he remains optimistic – especially given the support he has had from fellow senators who included it in their one-house budget resolution last month. Pretlow could not be reached for comment by publication time.

Addabbo has argued that mobile sports betting can withstand a legal challenge so long as servers are located at the casinos legalized through the 2013 state constitutional amendment.

Even if the Assembly gets on board, the matter could end up in court – making it more trouble than it is worth in the end, according to Bennett Liebman, an adjunct professor at Albany Law School who previously served as Cuomo’s state deputy secretary for gaming and racing. “The notion that where you site the servers solves this problem is extraordinarily oversimplistic,” Liebman said.

Going Addabbo’s route could prove to be a slippery slope. If the bill becomes law, gambling interests throughout the state would likely want a piece of the action, creating pressure to expand online gambling in the state to include things such as poker and electronic slot machines.

Legal clashes could also erupt between the upstate casinos, Indian tribes and other interests such as professional sports leagues, thanks to exclusivity agreements that have accompanied past deals to legalize gambling in the state. “The difficulty is coming up with legislation that meets the needs of everyone,” Liebman said. A constitutional amendment at the very least would not be vulnerable to as many legal challenges, but it would take significantly more time and support since two successive legislatures have to pass it as well as voters via a referendum. The governor does not have a veto in the amendment process.

Had lawmakers passed an amendment last year, they could have done the same in 2019 and placed it on the ballot in 2020. Now, they would have to wait at least until 2021. In short, the longer that legislators pursue mobile sports betting through legislation, the longer they may have to wait to actually see it happen, since the law could eventually be overturned on constitutional grounds. While still harboring doubts that even an amendment could reconcile all the different concerns lawmakers, Cuomo, gambling interests and others have about the proposal, it would at the very least have a stronger legal foundation, Liebman argued. “They’ve put it back another few years,” he said. “I have no idea what they were thinking.”