Amid ongoing efforts to legalize sports betting in North Dakota — and expand it beyond the tribal casinos, where it's already allowed — a House panel heard arguments Monday over a measure to let voters decide the issue next year.
“Passage of this resolution does not legalize sports betting,” Republican Rep. Greg Stemen, of Fargo, told the Judiciary Committee. “It simply allows the voters of North Dakota to determine whether they want to legalize sports betting when they vote in the November 2024 general election."
A change to the state constitution is required to legalize sports betting. If passed, voters would decide whether to authorize that change. Then, in 2025, lawmakers could decide how exactly to authorize, license and regulate sports betting in North Dakota.
The committee recommended against passage, but the resolution will get a floor vote later anyway.
Stemen said thousands of people in the state already participate in illegal sports betting — and the state could generate millions of dollars in tax revenue if it legalizes and regulates the industry.
Jacob Thomsen, a policy analyst with North Dakota Family Alliance Legislative Action, testified against the resolution. He said the legalization of sports betting would worsen gambling problems and addictions among North Dakotans in exchange for a relatively small increase in state revenue.
It's not “morally justifiable to earn a fraction of additional annual state budget revenue off of those with gambling problems,” Thomsen said.
Mark Hagerott, chancellor of the North Dakota University System, also testified against the resolution, saying it doesn't specify whether people will be able to place bets on college sports.
“Sports betting potentially undermines the integrity of the game and renders unpaid athletes vulnerable to money flowing through their respective games and contingent on their performance,” he said.
These concerns would be ironed out later by future lawmakers, said Pat Gibbs, national public policy counsel for the Sports Betting Alliance.
The resolution “simply starts the conversation" by asking the people of North Dakota if the state should legalize sports betting, Gibbs said.
“To maximize state revenue, enhance user convenience, and best attack illegal offshore sports betting websites that currently operate in North Dakota, the legislature should authorize and regulate competitive statewide mobile sports betting,” Gibbs added.
Republican Rep. Lawrence Klemin, of Bismarck, chairman of the committee, said lawmakers will amend the resolution so it only allows betting on professional sports. He said that would “take care of the concern” about student athletes, since they are not professionals.
Republican Gov. Doug Burgum signed agreements last year with North Dakota’s American Indian tribes that lower the legal gambling age from 21 to 19 at tribal-owned casinos, among other measures. The tribal-state agreements also allow online sports betting on mobile devices within reservation boundaries, but not outside of them.
The state’s five tribes had asked for exclusive rights to host internet gambling and sports betting outside the reservations, but Burgum did not agree because sports betting isn't legal statewide.
Across the country, people have bet more than $125 billion on sports via legal gambling outlets since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2018 cleared the way for all 50 states to offer it. More than 30 states have legalized it so far.
Trisha Ahmed is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow her on Twitter: @TrishaAhmed15
Trisha Ahmed, The Associated Press