Thursday is the last session day for the Michigan Legislature before the summer recess, but just prior to the most unusual vacation (or stay-cation), a group of 10 lawmakers introduced what appears to be a symbolic message to the Michigan Gaming Control Board: Please help deliver online gambling ahead of schedule.
The measure, Senate Bill 969, did not make it onto the calendar this week or last for the Senate Regulatory Reform Committee. And with only three working days in late July and one in August, it is very unlikely this bill would advance before September.
The bill would effectively fast-track Michigan online casino launches, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. It would bypass the normal regulations process by allowing all of the state’s 12 federally recognized tribes and three commercial casinos to “be considered to hold an internet gaming operator license” until the state’s chief medical executive or federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declares that “social distancing related to the COVID-19 is no longer necessary in this state.”
In light of recent infection spikes across the country as social distancing measures have relaxed, “no longer necessary” seems exceedingly unlikely to occur in 2020. The bill would simply insert new language into the Lawful Internet Gaming Act of 2019, which legalized the kind of online gambling currently taking place in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. SB 969 does not also apply to online sports betting.
The process so far and what it means
Realistically, the bill appears a symbolic nudge for the Michigan Gaming Control Board to finish its work, which projected in March that it would take just over a full year to draft, vet, and approve regulations before online casino operations could commence.
“We continue to make progress on rule promulgation for internet gaming and online sports betting,” Richard Kalm, the MGCB executive director, said on May 15 when the agency began accepting gaming supplier license forms. “While we expect to launch these forms of betting by early 2021, we hope it can happen sooner.”
Sooner appears to be the fall months, when the sports calendar will (or may) be busier than usual, with the NFL and college football seasons expected to begin with some semblance of a normal schedule, the PGA’s Masters tournament rescheduled into November, the Indy 500 pushed back to late August, the Kentucky Derby set for Labor Day Weekend, and the NBA, NHL, and MLB seasons operating on somewhat uncertain timelines, with current seasons ending much later than usual and possibly beginning anew for 2020-2021 after much shorter off-seasons.
No doubt the state needs any new source of revenue, as the coronavirus pandemic has rocked Michigan’s economy like every other state across the country. There are some opportunities to abbreviate the rule-making process along the way, with the possibility to shave a multiple week review by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules down to just a couple days.
“We’ve been working on the rules for internet sports and casino-style gaming since early February and believe the agency can deliver the rules to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules for its review this fall, possibly by October if all goes well,” Mary Kay Bean, spokesperson for the MGCB, told Mi Bets. “At that point, it will be up to JCAR. Launch could happen before year’s end if the remaining steps in the administrative rules process, including JCAR review, go well.”
SB 969 was sponsored by a group of senators that included Sen. Curtis Hertel, who was a key proponent of the 2019 legislation that eventually legalized online sports betting and casino gambling.
If SB 969 does work its way to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the fall, would any commercial or tribal operators even be ready? The answer is almost certainly yes, with established operators like The Stars Group, Rush Street Interactive, FanDuel, DraftKings, and MGM already operating online in multiple states, with partnerships in place in Michigan and platforms that would not require much polishing to launch in another jurisdiction, especially if SB 969 became law.
“The MGCB has not taken a position on SB 969,” Bean said. “Licensing must happen before online gaming can start, and Michigan must have at least one tribal and one commercial license approved before launch. We were aware of the legislation but only the legislators can evaluate the bill and decide whether to adopt it.”
COVID-era restrictions and responses
In-person casino gambling has begun again at several tribal casinos in Michigan, while commercial casinos are eyeing a July 4 weekend limited reopening under certain safety guidelines and restrictions intended to limit coronavirus exposure to patrons and employees.
In-person sports betting began at the three Detroit commercial casinos in Michigan in mid-March, but enjoyed just a three-day run before COVID-19 shut casinos down. While those remain closed, a new brick-and-mortar sportsbook actually opened this week when the FireKeepers Casino in Battle Creek, which reopened on June 1, unveiled its Dacey’s Sportsbook.
The pandemic has spurred another state into a very unexpected shift online. In early June, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, citing casino closures and safety, signed an executive order suspending a requirement for in-person registration to open an Illinois sports betting account. As a result, the BetRivers Sportsbook debuted online one week later, accepting bettors via online registrations. The order will remain in place as long as the governor’s health emergency declaration holds.
But in Michigan, the baton headed to online launches remains in the hands of the regulators. No in-person registration is required by Michigan law for online gambling, online casino and sports betting included.
Odds are low on SB 969, but the message is delivered. The goal posts are effectively moved up to football season, and the drive is on.