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California May Legalize Online Gambling: Pros and Cons

— December 15, 2020

This tremendous tax revenue could be just what California needs to survive its current struggles from the pandemic. Maybe, just maybe, the dollar signs will win out and gambling tax revenue can start supporting California

California residents have a few good options when it comes to gambling in their state. Unlike several other states with much stricter laws around gambling, Californians currently can enjoy cardrooms, Native American casinos, the California State Lottery, pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing, and charitable gaming. Commercial casino-style gaming, however, is presently still prohibited.

But what about online gambling in California? This emerging market has opened up in many places, bringing in much-needed tax revenue and bolstering struggling states during the COVID-19 epidemic. Stuck at home, many Californians have been looking for a way to enjoy their favorite pastime from a safe social distance, too.

Could we soon see the Golden State legalize online gambling? And what would that mean for California?

New Gambling Laws in California?

In 2018, the Supreme Court struck down a 1992 federal law that had previously banned commercial sports betting in most states. This change opened the door to legalizing the estimated $150 billion in illegal wagers on professional and amateur sports that Americans make every year.

Since this ruling, 22 states have legalized sports gambling, with California contemplating the change but struggling to overcome a number of legislative roadblocks. Two California legislators, however, Senator Bill Dodd (D-Napa) and Assemblymember Adam Gray (D-Merced) have taken it upon themselves to draft an amendment to the state’s constitution that would appear on the ballot in November if it is able to pass both houses.

Social and Legislative Roadblocks

The various players here all have different priorities which tend to be at odds of one another. While state legislators’ agendas favor action, tribal casino and poker room operators see the legalization of online gambling as a threat to their businesses in the state. These groups have continued to lobby strongly against the establishment of any new competitors in what they see as their territory.

Any bill that is proposed requires a two-thirds approval from the state legislature, followed by voter approval in a subsequent referendum. Without a consensus among the warring factions, the approval process will be stopped in its tracks. If history is any indicator, gambling legislation has not had a lot of success in California, making it a long-shot at best, despite the interest from several lawmakers.

Recent Legislative Action in California

That said, the forecast for online sports betting does have a brighter outlook than the potential for any online casino legislation in the near future. The 2018 Supreme Court decision that allowed states to legalize sports betting at their discretion definitely opened the door to making sports betting more mainstream in the US and less of a taboo to legislators.

The recent proposal from Dodd and Gray would allow California tribal casinos and racetracks to offer online sportsbooks and online wagering. “We have a duty to bring illegal sports wagering out of the shadows and support our communities with the revenue,” said state Sen. Bill Dodd. “We can’t afford inaction.”

The first step in the legislative process passed when the Democrats on the state’s Senate Governmental Committee advanced their measure in a 9-3 vote in favor.

Pros for California

California lawmakers are watching neighboring states make the most of recent changes to the law, earning significant tax revenue from sports wagering, and in some cases, from Californians.

The tangible benefits of online gambling legislation in California number in the billions. It is estimated that Californians place around $10 billion or more annually in illegal wagers. This money could be harnessed to help combat the $54 billion state budget deficit caused by the catastrophic economic hit the state has taken due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Closed sign in shop window; image by fotografierende, via
Closed sign in shop window; image by fotografierende, via

John Holmes from NoDepositHero comments: “Legalizing online gambling in California would be a tactical move, following the lead of 22 other states, to aid the state’s budget deficit and effectively decriminalize a popular form of entertainment.”

As written, the proposal would funnel revenue generated from sports gambling (10% and 15% for online and mobile bets) into a general fund and be available to “assist the state in recovering from the health and economic damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and to fund priorities related to education, public health and public safety.”

Cons for California

The possible budget boost from legalizing online gambling is still disputed, however. Opponents claim that the income would not come close to supporting the ensuing regulatory costs of such a decision.

Additionally, the state’s influential tribal casinos have banded together to squash debate on the topic for years, maintaining their opposition to a constitutional amendment. They testified to the long list of regulatory challenges that mobile wagering would face, such as how to identify and prevent minors from gambling, how to identify and assist problem gamblers, and how to effectively police against unauthorized and suspicious transactions.

Whether or not these challenges can be addressed by the recent amendment is yet to be seen.

Changes on the Horizon?

Significant legislative change related to online gambling in California still faces a lot of opposition and hurdles to overcome in the near future. Supporters of legalization, however, say that legalized sports gambling could generate $200 million in new revenue in the first year with the potential for $500 million or more in additional years as more sportsbooks go live.

This tremendous tax revenue could be just what California needs to survive its current struggles from the pandemic. Maybe, just maybe, the dollar signs will win out and gambling tax revenue can start supporting California.

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