The D.C. Council on Tuesday narrowly authorized the city to grant a sole-source contract to run its new foray into online sports betting, a move that concerns critics who say the lucrative deal should be competitively bid.
Lawmakers late last year legalized sports gambling at arenas, at retailers and on a mobile app. But the city has a monopoly on mobile betting, which is expected to be the most popular way to place wagers and the biggest source of revenue.
The bill, which passed 7 to 6, would allow the city to suspend competitive bidding rules and allow Greece-based Intralot, which already has the contract to operate the D.C. Lottery, to manage online sports gambling and related services. Lawmakers have to approve it a second time before it can head to the desk of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who supports the measure.
D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt said a sole-source contract is preferred because under the normal procurement process, it would take more than two years to launch mobile sports betting and the city would forgo an estimated $61 million in revenue as a result of the delay.
But the city has a competitive bidding process for a reason, critics say, adding that it is designed to make sure that taxpayers get the best deal and that contracts are not steered to politically connected vendors.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who championed sports betting and the sole-source contract, insisted that any money saved by competitive bidding would be offset by the revenue lost while companies compete for the contract.
He also invoked a shooting Monday night at a bus stop that left five wounded as a reason to suspend competitive bidding, noting that a portion of sports gambling revenue is set aside for violence-prevention programs, in addition to early-childhood care.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) said such critical programs should be funded by stable and predictable sources of revenue. Others said they were not convinced that a sole-source contract was necessary to launch sports gambling quickly.
“We are rushing this process unnecessarily,” said council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who referenced the history of contracting scandals with the D.C. Lottery.
The bill was originally introduced as emergency legislation in January, but it did not have enough support to bypass normal legislative channels. Lawmakers held a public hearing on the bill last week, when DeWitt said the sole-source contract was not politically motivated and critics warned that the city was setting a dangerous precedent.
“It came down to the money,” Evans said, explaining the final vote.
The D.C. Council on Tuesday also unanimously passed several bills to help federal workers during future government shutdowns.
The council passed emergency legislation introduced by the mayor that would allow the city to pay unemployment benefits to essential federal workers who must work without pay during shutdowns.
Bowser asked the federal government to grant the city that authority, but she was denied.
The D.C. Council had been scheduled to vote Tuesday on a request from the mayor that would have diverted $21 million slated to redevelop Fort Dupont Ice Arena to pay for repairs that are immediately needed in schools. But amid protests from the backers of the ice rink, the council delayed the vote to try to find funding for both projects.
The council also expanded a measure that requires judges to stay evictions or foreclosures of federal workers who miss rent or mortgage payments because they are not paid during a government shutdown. On Tuesday, the council agreed to include public defenders who were inadvertently left out of earlier legislation.
Both shutdown bills head to the mayor and can take effect when signed.
Another shutdown could be around the corner. The government is funded only through Feb. 15 while a group of congressional lawmakers works to reach an agreement on border security, the issue that prompted the 35-day partial shutdown that ended in late January.