A little backdoor action at the Statehouse

We’re in the late stages of the legislative session, a time when everyone wants to hear the final gavel come down and get out of Dodge. And when a whole bunch of bills are flying from chamber to chamber, from committee to committee, providing plenty of opportunities for lawmaking legerdemain. Or, as one observer put it, “the time of year when stuff is going to be slid through the cracks.”

I hear of two provisions designed to open the door to expanded gambling in Vermont. Both are attached to seemingly unrelated bills. In both cases, gambling opponents are trying to keep their eye on the bouncing ball.

The culprit, it’s safe to say, is Sen. Kevin Mullin, Republican chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee, a staunch supporter of, and crafty finagler on behalf of, expanded gambling in Vermont. For a number of years, Mullin has been pushing to expand the definition of state-sanctioned gambling, by hook or by crook.

Earlier in this session, he sponsored S.223, a bill that would have established regulations on daily fantasy sports (DFS). His bill passed the Senate but was consigned to committee purgatory in the House.

Mullin’s response: stuff the substance of S.223 into House Bill 84, which originally concerned Internet dating sites but has morphed beyond recognition into a catch-all for a number of consumer protections.

Mullin’s last-minute add creates definitions for “Fantasy Sports Contests” and establishes consumer protections for them. This is a strange thing, because Attorney General Bill Sorrell has ruled that daily fantasy sports are illegal gambling, as have numerous other Attorneys General.

What could possibly be the point, Your Political Observer asks, in setting ground rules for an illegal activity? Unless, Y.P.O. concludes, it’s the first step in a push to legalize said activity.

Mullin’s other maneuver is a bid to loosen the legal definition of “lottery products” that can be offered by the state Lottery Commission. This was crammed into S.252, the must-pass budget bill.

In case you think that changing the legal definition of “lottery products” is a nothing-burger, here’s State Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury) to tell you otherwise:

If the lottery language is accepted, and the Vermont Lottery is allowed to develop lottery “products,” they will be allowed to expand gaming without legislative approval, and those games can include Keno or video poker or video slots, as long as these games are approved by the Vermont Lottery.

A bit of background. In 2013, during the “last-minute wrangling over the state budget bill” (sound familiar?), Mullin inserted language mandating a report from the Lottery Commission on Keno, a fast-paced computer bingo game.

The Commission, which has “a dual mission of control and profit*,” Stevens notes, is in favor of offering Keno. It instituted a pilot program two years ago, Stevens says, “against the wishes of the Joint Fiscal Committee and… the House.” Under the pilot program, gambling machines were installed in some 20-odd bars. In last year’s tax bill, the House called for an end to the pilot program and removal of the machines as of July 1, 2016.

*Not unlike the former structure of the state’s EB-5 program under the Agency of Commerce: Regulation and promotion under a single roof. How’d that work out?

Enter Mullin, anxious to keep the pilot program going at the very least. His amendment to the Big Bill would remove the expiration date on the pilot program and expand the definition of allowable “lottery products,” meaning the Lottery Commission could add Keno and video poker and slots (among other things) if it was so inclined.

The goal, presumably, is to give everyone a taste of the potential revenues we could glean from expanded gaming, which could grow political support for the ultimate goal, state-sanctioned casinos.

Stevens is vice-chair of the House Committee on General, Housing and MIlitary Affairs, the panel that has kept Mullin’s S.223 under wraps since it passed the Senate. He is, he freely acknowledges,

“… against expanding state-sponsored gambling. But if we are going to have the conversation, it should be out in the open with a light shining on it, rather than now, at the end of the biennium.”

Hard to argue with that.

Now that a light has been trained on the Mullin Machinations, one hopes he will scuttle back under his rock until the 2017 session, when doubtless he will try again.

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