80% of states with online casinos and 70% of those with online sportsbooks have longer-than-average legislative sessions.

The Secret Ingredient In Online Gambling Expansion: Long Legislative Sessions

Lawmakers who have more time to consider legalizing online gambling tend to do so. Online Poker Report examined all 50 states in order to determine whether having longer legislative sessions made passing online gambling legislation more probable. Unsurprisingly, it did.

State legislatures that have legalized online gambling (in any form) met for longer periods of time on average than the ones who haven’t yet done legalized it. With only two exceptions, the states that have passed bills to legalize online sports betting, online casino gambling or online poker held legislative sessions lasting for a significant portion of the year, if not the full thing.

Say we split US states into two halves, based on length of their legislative sessions. Of the 25 states with the longest sessions, we find:

  • Four with online casinos, poker and sports betting,
  • Eight others with online sports betting (or nine, if you include Washington D.C.),
  • Two with retail sports betting only, and
  • 11 with none of these things.

Compare that to the 25 states with the shortest sessions, which look like this:

  • One with online casinos, poker and sports betting
  • Four with online sports betting
  • Six with retail sports betting only, and
  • 14 with none of these things.

Almost all iGaming states have long sessions

It’s an easy trend to pick out in visual form. Take a look at this list of all 50 states (plus Washington D.C.) arranged in order of average standard session length over the last four years:

States by length of legislative session

Source: LegiScan session schedules

The most notable feature of this is that almost all the states with a full gambling package (including online casino, online poker and sports betting) are near the top.

Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have state legislatures that meet year-round, and all three have legalized multiple forms of online gambling. New Jersey online casinos and poker have been around since 2013, and sports betting followed in December 2018, but only because it was prohibited under federal law until then. Pennsylvania launched all three verticals in July 2019, and Michigan followed suit in January of this year.

The only major exception is West Virginia, but even that comes with an asterisk.

The WV Legislature tends to meet for 60 consecutive days, beginning in January. It nonetheless managed to pass both sports betting and iGaming bills.

However, it had to do so in three pieces, legalizing retail sportsbooks first, then online sportsbooks, and finally general online gambling the following year. Even the sports betting portion might not have passed if not for state lawmakers agreeing to a special session in 2018. That session, which ran from June 26 to Oct. 15 was primarily for the purpose of drafting articles of impeachment for several sitting judges. However, it was during this period that the initial retail sports betting bill passed, in August.

Online sports betting legislation passed in December 2018, also outside of the regular session. Online casino and poker followed in 2019. They squeaked in to the regular session, but only on the final day before the legislature adjourned on March 9.

Long sessions also help with online sports betting

The same trend is present for sports betting as well. It is weaker, however, especially when we include retail-only sports betting.

There are a couple of reasons for that. Firstly, retail gambling is both simpler to implement and more familiar to lawmakers than online products. Secondly, many of these smaller, retail-only sports betting states have left it up to their tribes. In some cases, there hasn’t even been the need for a law, only amended compacts. Even where a bill is needed, however, leaving the implementation to the tribes simplifies lawmakers’ task.

US online sportsbooks can be thought of as the narrow end of the wedge for gambling expansion. Legislators often treat sports betting as “small G” gambling, or not serious wagering. So far, at least, they’ve often approved sports betting before online casino or online poker.

During the past two years alone, the following states approved and launched online sports betting:

  • Pennsylvania, launched in May 2019;
  • Arkansas, legalized in July 2019 (on casino property only);
  • Iowa, launched in August 2019;
  • Indiana, launched in October 2019;
  • Oregon, launched in October 2019;
  • Colorado, launched in May 2020;
  • Illinois, began in June 2020; and
  • Michigan, started in January 2021.

Another legislative body that deliberates all year and voted to allow legal sports betting within its jurisdiction in 2018 is Washington D.C. It’s not a state, of course; but in December of that year, the DC Council approved retail sports betting. In May 2020, the district launched the online product in question: GambetDC, powered by Intralot.

Nevada

Nevada’s singularity almost goes without saying. After all, since the 1905 establishment of Las Vegas, the state’s become synonymous with gambling. Those laws predate the internet, however. So Nevada still needed a bill to legalize online poker, which state officials passed in February 2013.

That timing was determined by the state’s legislative calendar, which is odd both literally and figuratively. Lawmakers meet only biennially, on odd-numbered years. This year, they’ll gather from Feb. 1 to June 1.

Delaware

Delaware is the only state on this list that doesn’t offer online sports betting, although it does have retail sportsbooks.

State legislators, who tend to meet for six months at a time, approved online poker and iGaming way back in June 2012. They also legalized online poker and casino gaming. The former came to be tied to Nevada’s and later New Jersey’s online poker markets, in that the three states form what is now the only multi-state online poker network in the US.

Tennessee

The Tennessee legislature meets for 90 days from January to April. It approved an online-only sports betting bill in April 2019, which became law without Gov. Bill Lee‘s signature. Online sportsbooks then launched in November 2020.

Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire and Rhode Island

These six states all legalized online sports betting and all meet for about the same amount of time, beginning in January each year. This year, Iowa will adjourn the soonest – on April 20. New Hampshire and Rhode Island legislatures will remain in session the longest – until June 30.

Arizona

Arizona legalized sports betting, but it’s awaiting a launch. Gov. Doug Ducey signed the state’s sports betting bill into law last week. The state session began on Jan. 11 and will wrap up on  Apr. 24.

On April 14, LSR reported that DraftKings “plans to open a ‘first-of-its-kind’ sportsbook on-course at TPC Scottsdale.” Ducey appears to be a fan of the sport, as he famously kept golf courses open during the pandemic lockdowns.

New York

New York approved mobile sports betting on Monday, but it hasn’t yet launched. The New York State Assembly, the lower house of the state legislature, forwarded a budget on April 7 that included mobile sports betting and left the door open for online poker. The bodies don’t adjourn until June 10.

Who needs state legislatures? Not these 2 states

While Arkansas and Oregon can boast of legislatures that meet for longer periods of time than Virginia and West Virginia, their legal gambling laws didn’t come about through standard channels. In Oregon’s case, the legislative body acted early to legalize sports betting, but wasn’t able to implement it immediately. That meant that after the 2018 SCOTUS decision, the state was able to go forward without needing to vote again.

Arkansas

Arkansas legislators are slated to meet from Jan. 11 to April 30 this year, but are known for being available for special sessions when necessary. The body gathers every other year.

However, Arkansas voters approved sports betting themselves after a petition to amend the state constitution made it onto the November 2018 ballot.

Oregon

Sports bettors in Oregon could wager beginning in October 2019. That’s because, according to the Legal Sports Report, the state’s oversight body, the Oregon Lottery, said that it already possessed the legal authority to do so.

LSR states of the Oregon Lottery:

“It says that its authority derives from the PASPA exemption that both federal and state government extended for Sports Action, its original sports betting product from many years ago.”

Meanwhile, Oregon’s elected lawmakers will convene from Jan. 21 to June 28, 2021. Although in general, the legislators gather for a maximum of 160 days in odd-numbered years, and 35 days in even-numbered years.

Among the pending bills lie legislatures that adjourn quickly

A few pieces of legislation may still pass in 2021, despite many past dashed hopes.

Maryland

Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones‘ office told Online Poker Report on April 14 that both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly passed a sports wagering and fantasy gaming competition regulation bill on April 12, the last day of the session. The bill now awaits Gov. Larry Hogan‘s signature.

Alabama

On April 13, the Alabama Senate approved a casino, sports betting and lottery bill. It now heads to the House. If passed, the measure allows voters to decide on whether they want to legalize gambling in the Alabama. The state legislature meets from Feb. 2 to May 30, but has failed in two previous attempts to pass gambling bills.

Connecticut

Nutmeggers are, in all likelihood, getting their own online gambling market in the near future. Both halves of the legislature are working to implement the agreement Gov. Ned Lamont reached recently with the tribes operating the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino.

The Connecticut Lottery is optimistic enough that it is already asking potential gambling partners to submit their qualifications by April 23.

How state legislative sessions could impact legalization, going forward

It seems to hold true that longer legislative sessions favor legalizing online gambling. Here’s a quick look at the most obvious cases.

Long legislative sessions

Among the eight states with the longest legislative periods, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania already have legal online gambling options. New York has been working hard on it, but has been held back by other factors.

Massachusetts, Ohio and Wisconsin are the three others with long sessions, but no online gambling as yet. Based on public interest in legalizing online gambling, and the activist nature of each state’s residents, chances are that most or all of these states will come around soon.

Short and/or erratic legislative sessions

Speaking of activist residents, Arkansas voters approved sports betting via a ballot initiative. They didn’t wait for their legislators, who only meet every other year.

Nevada is an outlier because despite its biannual sessions, it has a very pro-gambling attitude. There, what’s holding back online casinos is not the legislature, but rather a retail casino industry that doesn’t want to have to adjust.

Oregon relied on a loophole, so its short legislative sessions didn’t weigh into newer rounds of legalization.

That leaves Montana, North Dakota and Texas with unusually short legislative sessions. Texas is notable in that a state with 29 million residents could probably use a longer session. Instead, the Texas Legislature has 140-day sessions, but only during odd-numbered years.

North Dakota and Montana are even more extreme. Like Texas and Nevada, they meet only every two years, but those sessions are also shorter at just 80 and 90 days respectively. That amounts to a lot of missed opportunities to pass gambling legislation.

- Heather Fletcher is the lead writer with OnlinePokerReport. She's a career journalist, with bylines in The New York Times, Adweek and other publications. Reach her at [email protected]
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