CHARLESTON — A sports gambling bill passed by the West Virginia Senate on Tuesday could be used to generate revenue to help fund the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
But that’s only if betting on sports provides enough revenue, and provided the U.S. Supreme Court finds sports betting legal.
The Senate voted 29-5 in favor of Senate Bill 415 on Tuesday. The bill would allow betting on sports at the Mountain State’s casinos and through mobile phone apps.
A portion of the proceeds from sports betting would go to the state Lottery Commission under the bill. Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, offered an amendment to the bill that would divert any revenue over $15 million from sports bets to a special fund to help fund PEIA.
Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said lottery officials expect sports betting to generate about $5 million in the first year of implementation, about $13.4 million by the third year and about $28.7 million by the fifth year as sports betting becomes established.
But that assumes sports betting is found legal by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2012 and 2014, U.S. district courts found that sports gambling bills passed by the state of New Jersey ran afoul of federal law.
At least two West Virginia senators also raised questions about whether Senate Bill 415 was legal under the West Virginia Constitution. Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha and Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, both questioned whether the bill was constitutional.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said he believed the bill was in line with the state Constitution. He said drafters of the bill were referring to sports betting as a lottery, for which there is an express constitutional exemption.
Trump said lawmakers used similar language to allow for the passage of table games. “I think we’re on this hamster wheel of calling things a lottery whether they are or not,” Trump said.
Although Trump agreed with Palumbo that he didn’t really think sports betting was a lottery, he said he believed the bill was constitutional either way.
Senate Bill 415 must pass the House of Delegates and be signed by Gov. Jim Justice before becoming law. Assuming the U.S. Supreme Court finds such laws legal, sports betting would go into effect in 2019.
Also Tuesday, the Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 319, which would make it easier for home-schooled students to qualify for PROMISE scholarships. The Senate also voted in favor of Senate Bill 451, a hodgepodge hunting and fishing bill that would legalize Sunday hunting on public lands, allow for catching catfish by hand and allow for the use of infrared optics and other technology in hunting varmints like coyotes and foxes.
Senators also approved Senate Bill 475, which would allow the Department of Agriculture to create and administer an industrial hemp seed certification program. Bill proponents believe hemp will become a major industry in the state.