Bipartisan legislation that would legalize online gambling in Tennessee is headed to crucial votes in State House and Senate Committees on Tuesday. The House sponsor, Rep. Rick Staples (D- Knoxville), has said his proposal to legalize sports gambling for those 21 and older will allow only mobile and interactive wagers, without brick-and-mortar locations for betting. Sen. Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville) is the Senate sponsor. Although it is still considered a “work in progress”, the legislation could produce an extra $15 million a year in additional tax revenue.
Despite bipartisan support for the legislation, and little organized opposition, recent sexual harassment allegations against Staples have raised concerns about his role in carrying the bill. Some legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, have raised moral objections to expanding legalized gambling in Tennessee. Nevertheless, supporters believe that the limited legalization of online gambling has a good chance of passage if it makes it to floor votes in the Senate and House.
Governor Bill Lee expressed opposition to legalized gambling during his campaign. Recently, however, there are indications that his Administration is working with sponsors of the legislation to limit the gambling options and specify where tax revenue would be directed. and that he could be supportive of the bill if it is amended properly.
The legislative effort received a boost when Tennessee Attorney General Herb Slatery issued an opinion that legislative action rather than a Constitutional Amendment could legalize sports betting in the state. Although University of Tennessee administrators had previously expressed concern about sports gambling those concerns may have been sufficiently addressed to prevent their opposition to the bill at this point.
Tennessee Star Political Editor Steve Gill says that the lure of significant tax revenue from online gambling, combined with the fact that surrounding states are already receiving revenue from Tennesseans crossing state lines to place their bets, will cause legislators to think twice about rejecting the legislation. “The fights over controversial issues like Education Savings Accounts, the Heartbeat Bill, and other ‘hot’ legislation has kept the gambling bill from attracting much attention at this point, both pro- and con-,” Gill said. “Several legislative leaders have admitted they haven’t been hearing much about it.” If the bill survives the two committee votes this week it may get to a full vote soon without the controversy that many expected it to attract when it was first filed last year, Gill added.