State Sen. Bill Dodd sponsors bill that could lead to sports betting in state

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State Sen. Bill Dodd is betting that legal sports gambling can help build bridges and educate California’s youth.

The Democrat from Napa, whose District 3 includes Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Sonoma, has proposed a ballot measure that could legalize gambling on sports throughout the state.

The move comes in response to last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down a ban on sports betting in most states and follows the lead of several states that have jumped into the lucrative sports-wagering pool.

Dozens of Indian-owned casinos in California generate gambling revenues of nearly $8 billion annually, while the American Gaming Association estimates the illegal betting industry at $150 billion per year in California through bets with bookies and offshore accounts, as well as through informal office pools like those for the men’s NCAA tournament.

Dodd’s bill, introduced June 27 in collaboration with state Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, would change the state’s Constitution to legalize sports wagering statewide.

It would have to garner a two-thirds vote in the Legislature by next year to get on the state ballot. It would then be voted on by Californians on the November 2020 ballot, where it would need a simple majority to pass.

The proposal doesn’t include details of exactly where sports wagering would be allowed, how it would be regulated and how much the state would take in a cut of the proceeds.

“We will have the framework and details fairly well worked out before the voters see it,” Dodd said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Otherwise there’s not a lot of love and trust between stakeholders. We’ll get everything dealt with before that.”

Specifics would include where sports gambling could be conducted — at card rooms, horse racing facilities, tribal casinos or elsewhere.

“Everything’s on the table right now,” Dodd said. “It could be all of them.”

Currently, Sonoma County has four legal options for gambling: two Indian casinos, River Rock and Graton; the Parkwest card room in Petaluma; and horse racing at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

Dodd said he would like to see gambling revenue generated go toward public education, infrastructure projects and other government services.

Until last year, sports wagering was illegal in every state except Nevada. But in May 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 1992 federal law prohibiting sports betting in other states.

Eight states now allow legal sports wagering, and more than 35 are considering legislation. In California, it would require changing the state’s Constitution, which Dodd’s proposal does.

For decades in California, state and federal laws have given Indian tribes the exclusive right to operate slot machines, blackjack and other casino-style games on federally protected land. Tribes have argued that sports betting rights are included in their compacts with the state.

Card rooms, which offer forms of gaming like blackjack and baccarat, last week won a legal battle when a federal court dismissed a suit filed by three Indian tribes against California, arguing that they have the exclusive legal right to offer those types of games as well.

There are 72 card rooms currently in operation in California, including Parkwest in Petaluma. They range from one or two tables to the largest cardroom in the world with 270 tables, according to the California Gaming Association trade group.

Sixty-one of California’s 110 federally recognized tribes operate 63 casinos in the state, according to the tribal association.

The California Nations Indian Gaming Association, which represents tribal casino interests, opposes the expansion of gambling in the state without tribal exclusivity.

Steve Stallings, chairman of the group, told the Los Angeles Times that legislators “should proceed with caution.”

The group opposes additional gaming “including sports betting, until the for-profit, commercial card rooms stop their illegal practices … A legitimate discussion on sports betting could then proceed as long as tribal exclusivity is maintained.”

Public hearings throughout the state are planned to gauge public support and gather concerns, Dodd said. A time frame for those hasn’t been established.

The four major professional sports leagues — the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA — all sided with the U.S. government in opposing expanded state sports wagering.

Their response to how legalized sports betting in California’s premium sports environment may materialize has yet to be seen. Fantasy sports and betting sites are expected to weigh in as well.

Dodd said the debate hasn’t started yet at the state Capitol about what should be included in the question to voters — and what the tribes might be willing to negotiate on.

“The tribes have significant political muscle because they’ve got a lot of money,” he said. “It’s really important that we have a transparent process and get everyone in the room and figure out the best way to move forward.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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