The midterm elections have come and gone, with some major shifts in electoral control of regions throughout the country. In Michigan the offices of the governor and the attorney general have changed hands from Republican control to Democrat, but the Republican party has managed to narrowly maintain its hold on both the State House and State Senate.
But from the point of view of gambling legislation, the most significant election result is the successful re-election of Brandt Iden to a third term in the State House representing the 61st District. Iden is seen as the driving force behind any potential gaming expansion in the state, and had he lost it would have seemed likely that the topic could wind up essentially abandoned by the legislature.
After a tense night with the outcome remaining too close to call, the final vote came through with Iden just barely ahead of Alberta Griffin, assuring another two years of opportunities to get a new version of his proposed bill through.
A little iGaming and Iden history
Michigan made its first foray into online gambling in 2014, with the soft launch of the now wildly successful online lottery.
Later that year Brandt Iden was first elected to the State House, on a platform mostly focused on economic growth and jobs. His district has been consistently represented by a Republican since the 1970s.
In 2016, State Senator Mike Kowall introduced the first attempt to introduce online casinos with SB 889, which would have created up to eight online gaming licenses in the state (eventually decreased to three). Progress on the legislation became stalled when focus shifted to the state budget, and it did not make it to a vote before the end of the year and the bill aged out of existence.
Iden signed onto a bill sponsored by State Rep. Robert Kosowski in January of 2017, HB 4060, which would have allowed casinos in Michigan to introduce sports betting. Then, in March, Kowall attempted again to introduce a revised version of his iGaming bill – SB 203 – hoping for a warmer reception.
SB 203 moved out of committee but quickly faced opposition from tribal casino owners due to language that would have placed them at a severe disadvantage to Detroit’s commercial casinos. This mostly stems from the natural of tribal compacts in Michigan that have proven very difficult to renegotiate, and remains a major hurdle for Michigan online gambling to this day.
A State House financial report was released which indicated that online gambling would bring significant economic benefits to the state. By September of that year Iden introduced his own version of an iGaming bill, HB 4926, which he hoped he could make more agreeable for the tribes than the Senate attempt.
Ultimately Iden was able to get support for HB 4926 from the Detroit commercial casinos, but has not made enough progress with tribal operators to bring them on board. When summer began it became clear the legislation would likely again fail, as the state government began a session break, and would not resume until too close to the elections for the House to take up such a topic.
What is next for the legislation
Now that the elections are over it is possible that the legislature could convene move quickly and get the bill approved, but this is extremely unlikely for multiple reasons. The main impediments to passage have still not been resolved, and even if they could be, the gaming industry is not a big enough priority for Michigan to push ahead of other potential discussions.
Mike Kowall has reached the end of his term limit and will be leaving the State Senate, leaving Iden the only major figure in the state pursuing gaming expansion. With the current bills expiring at the end of the year, the proposals will need to be rewritten again for 2019 and the process start all over again.
Iden will also likely need to garner support from other new members of the legislature, hopefully finding assistance from another party who may be able to help break down some of the barriers to tribal support. It remains to be seen if the new state executives would be on board with gaming expansion, but there is no partisan reason to assume opposition as online gaming has so far come about in mostly blue states with proponents on both sides of the aisle.
The sports opportunity
Hopes still remain that online gambling can get a helpful push from a desire to add sports wagering, as that new industry is proving incredibly lucrative to states that have adopted it. Many of the same concerns exist for the tribes, but the possible economic benefits may be appealing enough for the state to bend a bit further to reach an agreement.
Interest in sports betting in Michigan will likely only increase. Very recently Detroit Pistons power forward Blake Griffin signed a deal with “sports prediction app” WinView, announced just a week after the star player scored a career-high 50 points in one game. This follows a deal made over the summer for MGM to partner with the NBA for sports betting (MGM owns the Grand Detroit, the most successful of Michigan’s commercial casinos).
If the growing desire for sports wagering in Michigan is not enough to get a gaming expansion through, it is unclear what could. If all else fails perhaps the state will wind up just floating iGaming as a public referendum, much like the vote on recreational marijuana that passed Tuesday. It may seem odd that more states have adopted weed than have moved forward on new gambling verticals, but it’s possible that what works legislatively for the one is worth trying for the other.