Editorial: Michigan's online gaming bet poses some risks

The Detroit News

Michigan lawmakers last week passed a bipartisan nine-bill package that would legalize sports betting and online gambling. We think citizens have the right to indulge their vices, but the state should be prepared to react to unintended consequences.

The legislation, which also lifts restrictions that ban casino licensees and stakeholders from making political contributions at the state level, has been sent to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk for approval. She has expressed support.

Last year, former Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed similar legislation, citing concerns over budget impacts and the possibility that it could decrease Michigan Lottery revenue — funding that heads to K-12 schools.

Some of those worries have been addressed this time around.

More:Michigan on verge of joining national sports betting movement

State Rep. Brandt Iden

Bill sponsor Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Oshtemo Township, says the package would increase the School Aid Fund by $35-50 million through sports betting tax revenue in the first year alone, and even more once online gambling starts up.

That’s all well and good, but let’s not forget that gambling can ruin lives.

The Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline received 14,219 calls in the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to Alia Lucas, gambling disorder program manager for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. And 2,102 of those calls resulted in referral for treatment.

Those numbers don’t include those who voluntarily opt to have themselves barred for life from Detroit’s three casinos. The Michigan Gaming Control Board’s “disassociated persons” list included 4,758 names as of Nov. 30 this year.

“One concern with online betting is the accessibility,” Lucas says. “People who may not be able to go to casinos will be able to gamble.”

To that end, the Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline is going to air commercials about gambling addiction on Fox Sports during 35 Red Wings games, 43 Pistons games as well as 260 bonus commercials to run during March Madness (when sports betting would be available in Michigan for the first time).

The legislation provides for $1 million per year to be funneled from betting revenue toward combating problem gambling, which is less than gambling addiction experts had requested.

Another potential problem is the provision lifting restrictions on casino licensees and stakeholders from making political contributions. This could easily have a corrupting influence on the regulators of the industry.

While there’s an ideological argument to be made that such a ban is a violation of free speech rights — casino owners have a right to participate in the political process — we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to how this is going to change the political landscape.

For instance, labor union members in the casino industry would now be eligible to contribute money to Democratic causes.

At the end of the day, there’s a lot of money to be made here. That’s good for the state and it’s good for the gambling industry.

But this legislation is going to shake things up. The state needs to be prepared for problems that will likely lie ahead.