3 Crucial Questions For Michigan’s Stalled Online Gambling Launch

Posted on November 12, 2020

Our best guess at PlayMichigan has long been a late November launch for Michigan online gambling.

However, after Tuesday’s Michigan Gaming Control Board meeting yielded no positive signs and Thursday’s congressional meetings were canceled, it’s time to admit December is a more likely launch month for online sports betting, casinos, and poker.

But that also might be optimistic thinking. It could also stretch to an early 2021 opening.

There’s still reason for 2020 optimism, but the cards aren’t stacked in online gambling’s favor… at least not as things stand now.

1. What is the status of Michigan’s online gambling rules?

The online gambling launch is fighting battles on two fronts: licensing and the state legislature. Licensing is underway, but gambling operators cannot be licensed until the rules are approved by the legislature.

That brings us to Lansing, where the internet sports betting and internet gaming rules sit before the Joint Committee of Administrative Rules. JCAR has a maximum of 15 session days to either pass the rules or send them back to the MGCB.

The rules were sent to JCAR on Oct. 8, and the gaming board requested the committee waive the session day requirement.

However, JCAR can also propose changes for the MGCB, object to the rules, or send the law back to both houses.

JCAR, which is made up of 10 members from the state’s Senate and House of Representatives, can meet during legislative sessions or in between.

Nobody has publicly objected to the rules, but none of the 10 JCAR members were instrumental in the legislation. It could be a matter of priority as the clock ticks toward the new year, and a re-setting of the JCAR process.

That could mean no bets on February’s Super Bowl. Kalm said Tuesday he’s optimistic that won’t be the case.

“I think we’re making some in-roads,” Kalm told the MGCB.

“Some of the legislators that were involved in passing this bill are very excited to see it get going. They’re having discussions about it. So as horse trading goes on in the legislature, we’re just optimistic that there will be a waiver and we can get going.”

2. How did Michigan get to this point?

It’s been almost a year since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed expanded gambling bills into law in December 2019.

The original hope was to get retail sports betting launched early in 2020 and to have sports betting, casinos, and poker available in Michigan’s cyberspace in early 2021.

But then the pandemic closed Detroit’s casinos a few days after retail sports betting launched. It quickly became clear after five months of closure that online gambling needed to happen sooner rather than later.

Public coffers desperately need the revenue influx, and for Michigan, here’s a new revenue source that could someday have nine-figure potential. For that reason alone, there was hope that a November 2020 launch would happen.

MGCB staff went to work. But drafting new rules and going through the process takes time.

Consider Pennsylvania, where the law to legalize online gambling was signed in October 2017. Online casinos launched in July 2019, almost two years later. Some states have been much faster, but it is not the norm.

Consider also that Michigan, like Pennsylvania, legalized online casinos and poker sites alongside sports betting. It is a much bigger hill to climb.

Elections and pandemics shake up Lansing

It was a long year for MGCB staff to work through the rules process, but it was a longer year in Lansing.

Whitmer, a Democrat, has been fighting political battles on multiple fronts, plus a foiled kidnapping plot by extremists. There’s also been the occasional targeted tweet from President Donald Trump, along with a court challenge from the Republican congressional majority that repealed many of her pandemic restrictions.

You can also add squabbles over masks in the chamber, along with assault weapon demonstrations inside the capital building during sessions to the mix. Many issues were also pushed aside because of the Nov. 3 elections.

This is the environment politicians are traversing.

After Thursday sessions were canceled, just nine session days remain on the 2020 calendar — all of them after the Thanksgiving holiday. More could be added, but the clock is ticking.

Salvaging a 2020 launch needs urgent and motivated forces. They could be there with some of the previous political barriers removed and lame-duck figures anxious for a win.

3. What happens next for Michigan online gambling?

Based on the above, optimistic hopes should realistically calibrate to a mid-to-late December launch at this point. But if JCAR meets in December and the rules are promulgated, the next steps are fairly straightforward.

For that to happen, JCAR chairman Pete Lucido, a Republican senator who was just elected Macomb County prosecutor for next year, would need to push JCAR to meet next month.

If the rules move through JCAR, they would then go to the Office of the Great Seal under Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

The holdup then becomes licensing, though the MGCB is already doing background work on that front. Many of the online operators are live in other states, the same ones Michigan used for its rules templates.

Silver lining? A Hail Mary from Rep. Brandt Iden

If you’re looking for optimism, don’t count out Rep. Brandt Iden.

The Republican from West Michigan was the primary driver of online gambling legislation, dealing with stops and starts the whole way. After six years, Iden is term-limited and just a few weeks away from wrapping up his run in the House.

Congressional members on both sides of the aisle have lauded his efforts to get this popular legislation through. Perhaps Iden could influence JCAR to get online gambling launched while he is still serving.

And while he’s one “B” short of the president-elect, Iden could take cues from Joe Biden and work across the aisle. Democrats such as Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. could help influence the final steps.

It would be a clean finish for the legislation, and one of the only issues on which both sides seem to agree.

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Matt Schoch

A Michigan native, Matt has worked at newspapers in Michigan, Missouri and the Virgin Islands. A versatile sports reporter, Matt has covered sailing on the Great Lakes, cricket in the Caribbean, high school and pro playoffs, and the Olympics in Rio. He's also the host of the Locked On Pistons Podcast and producer of a documentary on Emoni Bates. A former blackjack dealer, Matt has studied the industry from all sides.

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