One by one, California has been legalizing once-taboo vices. Will wagering on sports be the next one?
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Over the last several decades, Californians have increasingly embraced activities that had long been scorned — and often outlawed — as harmful vices.
The trend began in 1984 when voters approved a state-operated lottery, emulating several other states, in a ballot measure largely sponsored by a company that made lottery scratch-off tickets. It used the slogan “the schools win too,” because most of the net proceeds were to be spent public education.
The initial lottery consisted of scratch-off tickets, but eventually, it became a full-fledged gambling operation with regular drawings for multi-million-dollar jackpots, some of them connected to those of other states. The scratchers are still sold, with a current advertising slogan of “A little play can make your day.”
The next big move on legalizing vice came in the 1990s when several of California’s poverty-stricken Indian tribes, taking advantage of a federal court ruling, bootstrapped into full casino gambling.
The tribes started with bingo parlors, expanded into slot machines of dubious legality and then used their profits to become big political players in the Legislature and persuade voters that they should have a gambling monopoly.
That allowed them to borrow enough money to create full-fledged casino resorts rivaling those of Nevada and, ironically, forge partnerships with Nevada corporations that had attempted to block tribal gaming.
Gambling wasn’t the only vice to gain legal respectability. In 1996, as the tribes were solidifying their monopoly, voters allowed the sale and consumption of marijuana for medicinal purposes and two decades later, via a ballot measure sponsored by then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, made it fully legal, subject to state and local regulation.
Despite legalization, the above-board cannabis industry has struggled to achieve the high level of activity advocates want, in part because weed is still illegal in the federal government’s eyes. State taxes are also a burden on the legal industry and estimated 90% of marijuana grown and processed in California still goes into the underground market, much of it exported to other states.
This year, California voters will be asked to take the next step in the legalization of vice — making it OK to bet on sporting events.
Sports betting is legal in 30 other states, thanks to a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a federal anti-gambling law, and professional sports leagues, which long shunned gambling on their games, now have deals with big on-line sports wagering operations.
Efforts to legalize sports betting in the California Legislature stalemated and some Indian tribes that had so adroitly gained a casino monopoly a quarter-century ago quickly qualified a ballot measure that would allow sports wagering, but only in their casinos.
Two other measures are in various stages of qualifying for this year’s ballot, including one sponsored by the on-line betting corporations that directly challenges the tribal measure, and another by a tribal coalition that would also allow on-line betting under tribal control.
The competing interests have pledged to spend tens of millions of dollars to promote their versions and oppose their rivals. Voters will be bombarded by television and on-line ads that will be confusing at best, since all purport to have the same goal.
It’s impossible to predict which, if any, will prevail, a new statewide poll indicates. The poll by UC-Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found that 45% of registered voters support sports betting in concept, with 33% opposed.
That’s a starting point for the campaigns but there’s a well-established tenet of ballot measure politics that if voters are confused, they tend to vote “no” and there’s the potential for mass confusion on this issue.