Democrat Gubernatorial Front-Runners Embrace Sports Betting In Tennessee

Posted By Grant Lucas on July 25, 2018

A changing of the guard is on the way in Tennessee. And with it could come potential amendments to the state constitution to implement sports betting.

Primaries in the gubernatorial race for the Volunteer State will take place within the first few days of August, and by early November a new figure will be running the show, as Gov. Bill Haslam has exhausted his two-term limit in office.

With six Republicans, three Democrats and a slew of third-party candidates all theoretically in the running, the future of Tennessee sports betting is anyone’s guess.

That said, Haslam is a Republican. Since 1967, state voters have vacillated between GOP and Democratic governors. And since 1869, they have not elected back-to-back Republican governors.

So the pattern (regardless of polls that suggest another GOP governor will take office) suggests a Democrat will be elected. On Sunday night, the party’s front-runners debated, and both were on the same page when it comes to bringing sports betting to Tennessee.

First, a quick backstory

According to state law, gambling in Tennessee is “contrary to the public policy of the state,” meaning no legal casinos or sports betting. Violations result in misdemeanor charges.

Yet when the US Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in May, Sen. Brian Kelsey was ready to introduce a sports betting bill.

The senator sent a tweet the same day of the SCOTUS ruling, noting that taxed revenue would go toward K-12 education. Even so, the press secretary for Haslam’s office said the General Assembly has adjourned for the year, and Haslam is “still reviewing the Supreme Court’s decision in the case,” according to USA Today.

Kelsey said that he did not believe an amendment to the state constitution was necessary to roll out regulated sports betting, which could technically be true. State voters have approved exemptions in the past: one to green light the state lottery and another for limited pari-mutuel horse betting. State lawmakers also bypassed a referendum when daily fantasy sports was legalized in 2016.

Dems debate

On Sunday, Democratic front-runners Karl Dean and Craig Fitzhugh debated — or, really, agreed to agree on — sports betting.

Both gubernatorial candidates noted that sports betting is being legalized in surrounding states, such as West Virginia to the northeast and Mississippi to the southwest. They pointed out that the public is already placing wagers within the state’s borders, so why not embrace industry regulation?

“When everybody else around us is doing it, we’re going to need to do it, too,” Dean said.

“Look,” echoed Fitzhugh, “it’s happening in Tennessee now, we’re just not getting any revenue from it. And I don’t think you’re going to keep it from happening, so you might as well try to help the citizens of Tennessee by the revenue that we can claim from that particular activity.”

Maintaining a level head, Dean pointed out that revenue from sports betting would not be a “quick fix” for a porous $37 billion budget. Though he did say that adopting a lottery system prevented Tennesseans from traveling to other states and “spending their money there.”

Like Kelsey (and most politicians), Fitzhugh used education as a platform, and he used it in his argument for legalizing sports betting.

“We are so limited in the ability to raise revenue in this state,” Fitzhugh said. “Every one of the candidates in this race says, ‘What are you going to do about teacher salary? We’re going to raise them.’ Well, you can say that, but if we have a recession … we’re going to have a downturn. We’re going to have to figure out how to do this. And this is one option we need to look at. We might even be able to direct it to teachers’ salaries, to give them that trust fund that we can use that money to keep their salaries going up.”

Time will tell for TN Sports Betting

Certainly there is no overnight decision for legalizing sports betting in the Volunteer state. With the General Assembly adjourned for the year and a gubernatorial race to be decided, any movement on regulated wagering is months away.

Dean, however, emphasized that the topic will remain “front and center” for the foreseeable future — even if there are hurdles to clear.

“I think there [are] a couple issues that have to be resolved first,” he said. “First is whether there is a constitutional issue about whether we need a referendum or not. You can argue that one both ways, but that issue needs to be resolved. … This is a state that has not embraced gambling, certainly not embraced casinos. We only recently allowed wine being sold on Sundays. I think we have got to go through a process where we respect the beliefs of the people of the state, figure out what people want, and understand what the law is.”

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Grant Lucas

Grant Lucas is a longtime sports writer who has covered the high school, collegiate and professional levels. A graduate of Linfield College in McMinnville, Grant has covered games and written features and columns surrounding prep sports, Linfield and Oregon State athletics, the Portland Trail Blazers and golf.

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