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On Maryland ballots this fall: Should sports gambling be legal?

Vote Yes on Question 2 aired an ad on Sept. 15 to persuade voters to legalize sports betting in Maryland, arguing it will help bolster public education. (Video: Vote Yes on Question 2)

The sports gambling company DraftKings, which built its brand on fantasy sports, has put $250,000 behind persuading Maryland voters to legalize sports betting in November, campaign finance records show.

The first television ad of the effort hits airwaves Tuesday, featuring individuals who organizers said are public school teachers. They tell voters that the coronavirus pandemic has made it more important than ever to fund education and close the digital divide — and that legal sports betting is a partial solution.

“Sports fans in Maryland are ready — and waiting — to bet on sports legally,” DraftKings said in a statement. “Legalizing sports betting will allow for a customer-centric experience and shut down illegal sites that offer no consumer protections. It will also keep money in Maryland that’s currently going to legal markets in neighboring states.”

State lawmakers voted earlier this year to put the legalization question on the ballot, with the estimated $20 million to $40 million that would be raised by legal sports betting each year earmarked for education. Public polling from February shows Maryland residents deeply divided on the issue.

If approved, Maryland would allow betting on sports and other entertainment events, such as award shows.

A representative of FanDuel, one of DraftKing’s chief competitors, said Tuesday that it donated $500,000 to the initiative after the filing deadline for the most recent campaign finance reports. FanDuel said it plans to spend an additional $1 million to $1.5 million on the push to make sports betting legal in Maryland.

The ballot initiative, Vote Yes on Question 2, is chaired by basketball star Marissa Coleman, a former Women’s National Basketball Association player who was part of the 2006 University of Maryland team that won the NCAA Championship.

“You’ll hear a lot of my voice — see a lot of my face — to educate as many people as possible,” Coleman said Monday from France, where she’s playing in a European league this fall to finish out her professional career.

How to vote in Maryland this fall: Voting FAQ on mail ballots and more

Coleman said she grew up in Prince George’s County and wants to lend her platform to increasing funding for public schools, especially since betting on sporting events is already happening off the books.

“We can regulate it, and we can appropriately tax it” if it’s legal, she said, adding: “I think it’s imperative that people of color are involved in this, because often they are left out in these types of industries.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Maryland state lawmakers had spent months crafting how to launch a prospective sports gambling industry. DraftKings and FanDuel joined casino owners, racetrack operators and Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Football Team, in jockeying to have a betting license.

But in March the legislature adjourned early because of the pandemic. It didn’t have enough to time to negotiate details on how the industry would operate, how the revenue would be split and who would get licenses if voters approved it.

Instead, lawmakers passed a bill that said Maryland would figure out how to build the industry after it was approved by voters. It’s a departure from the state’s two previous gambling expansions, slot machines and table games, which each went to voters with a prescriptive blueprint about how the industry would work if passed.

“We had to rush out of Annapolis,” said Sen. Craig J. Zucker (D-Montgomery). “Instead of going back and forth at the House [of Delegates] with five seconds on the shot clock, we just put it on the ballot.”

Zucker noted that every state surrounding Maryland either already has sports betting or has approved a program that’s getting ready to launch.

Despite the pandemic, sports betting has proved popular. In August, New Jersey set a nationwide record for sports gambling, with wagers placing $668 million in bets. Before a 2018 Supreme Court ruling, sports gambling was only legal in Nevada. Since then, dozens of states have quickly legalized it. The District began legalized sports betting in May, and Virginia approved sports betting early this year.

With Maryland’s casinos shut down from March through mid-June, gambling revenue nosedived. The industry’s annual contribution to school funding declined by 27 percent compared with the year before, dropping beneath $400 million for the 2020 fiscal year.

Zucker called that “a major hit” and added that the money generated by sports gambling “would help to close that gap.”

So far, no opponents have filed paperwork with the state indicating they have raised money to fight Question 2.

Gambling is one of two statewide ballot questions in Maryland this year. The other asks voters to amend the Maryland Constitution to give state lawmakers more power over state spending.

If approved, the General Assembly would be able to shuffle how to spend money, provided the budget does not exceed the total proposed by the governor. Right now, the legislature may only trim from the governor’s budget proposal.

The constitutional amendment would also grant the governor line-item veto power over the budget, a new authority.

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