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Will Tennessee legalize sports betting?

Robert Houk • Dec 29, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III has issued an opinion that could open the door to legalizing sports betting in Tennessee.

“If chance is the dominant factor in determining the outcome of the contest, the contest constitutes a lottery, and absent an amendment to the Tennessee Constitution, the General Assembly may not authorize the contest solely through legislative action,” Slatery wrote. “If skill is the dominant factor in determining the outcome of the contest, the General Assembly may legalize the contest solely through legislative action without a constitutional amendment.”

Slatery posted his opinion online Dec. 14 in response to a question by state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, who has filed a bill in the state General Assembly to address betting on sports. Tennessee lawmakers return to work in Nashville on Jan. 8.

The attorney general noted the U.S. Supreme Court had removed a “major impediment to legalized sports betting” earlier this year when it struck down a federal ban on single-game betting in most of the United States. The high court’s ruling on Christie v. National Collegiate Athletic Association overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which has allowed other states to get in on a piece of the action.

New Jersey was one of 18 states that pushed to eliminate the federal prohibition on sports betting with the idea of placing state and local taxes on sports wagering. On the other side was the NCAA, National Basketball League, National Football League and Major League Baseball, who argued the ban was “necessary to protect the integrity of their games.”

Slatery wrote that a sports betting contest that is “predominately chance-based would constitute a lottery.” However, the attorney general said games that involved a degree of skill to determine the outcomes could be legalized by lawmakers.

Tennessee voters went to the polls in 2002 to approve a constitutional referendum creating a state lottery. The Tennessee Constitution had expressly forbidden such games of chance.

State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said there has been limited discussion about sports betting among his colleagues on Capitol Hill. He said state Sen. Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains, has pushed for passage of legislation in the past to legalize wagering on horse racing. Even so, he said the General Assembly has been content to steer clear of legalizing sports betting.

“We’ve had the reputation of being one of the most conservative state Senates in the nation, with Utah being the other,” Crowe said Friday.

He said that could change with Kelsey sponsoring a bill for legal sports betting. Crowe said the West Tennessee lawmaker is expected to return as the chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee next year, which would give him an advantage in pushing for passage of his legislation.

“I’ve not heard a word about this bill yet from constituents or my colleagues,” Crowe said. “I’m sure that’s about to change.”

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