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ND officials still assessing impact of sports betting ruling

House majority leader Rep. Al Carlson (R-Fargo) speaks in front of the House Appropriations Committee in January 2017. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune file photo

BISMARCK — A month after the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to sports betting across the country, North Dakota officials are still assessing their options.

State lawmakers may take a crack at the issue when they meet again early next year, but it's unclear how much support sports gambling will have in the Legislature, which is currently dominated by Republicans. Just last year, lawmakers rejected the idea of casinos outside Native American reservations but approved electronic pull tabs.

"I think it would have very minimal support because of the particular political pressures put on by various groups," said state Rep. Andy Maragos, R-Minot, who led the charge to legalize the lottery in 2002. "My guess is, if there is a group of citizens out there that would like to see sports betting legalized in North Dakota, they'll have to go to the ballot."

North Dakota tribes may already have the authority to operate sports gambling operations, according to a Legislative Council memo outlining staffers' preliminary analysis of the high court ruling. Compacts reached with each of the five tribes in 2013 allow for "sports book except as prohibited by the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act," the federal law the court ruled unconstitutional last month.

Several tribal officials didn't return messages seeking comment this week. Gov. Doug Burgum's spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the Republican governor has had preliminary discussions with tribal representatives "and is open to looking at ways to potentially capitalize on changes in national sports betting legislation to mutually benefit the state and the tribes."

The law, known as the PASPA, prohibited all but four states from "authorizing or licensing sports betting in any form," the American Gaming Association wrote in a court brief that called the law a "failed" policy. The AGA estimated Americans bet more than $150 billion illegally on U.S. sporting events per year.

Outside of tribal jurisdictions in North Dakota, the state constitution outlaws gambling except for charitable gaming and the multi-state lottery. State law also contains prohibitions on gambling on sporting events.

Licensed charitable gaming organizations generated $6.5 million in taxes for the state's general fund during the 2015-17 budget cycle, according to the attorney general's office. The lottery transferred almost $15.8 million to the general fund that biennium.

State lawmakers could pass legislation allowing sports betting under the existing charitable gaming laws, according to the Legislative Council memo. Another route would be a constitutional amendment, which would require a successful ballot measure.

Janelle Mitzel, president of the Charitable Gaming Association of North Dakota, said sports wagering is complicated and may involve contracting with a "large entity" such MGM Resorts International.

"I'm sure we will have some organizations that will want to do sports betting," she said. "And some of those organizations will be able to handle it and handle some limited amounts of bets, probably in conjunction with contracting services."

Mitzel said sports bars have contacted her eager for information as other states move to take advantage of the court ruling. The governor of New Jersey, the state that challenged the federal prohibition at the U.S. Supreme Court, signed legislation Monday allowing sports betting at the state's casinos and racetracks.

"I'm sure somebody's going to do something," said North Dakota House Majority Leader Al Carlson, a Fargo Republican who introduced last year's failed casino resolution.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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