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Place your bets: Will Kansas and Missouri legalize sports gambling?

The American Gaming Association says bettors were expected to plunk down $10 billion this year just on NCAA basketball brackets. Almost all of those bets would be placed illegally.
The American Gaming Association says bettors were expected to plunk down $10 billion this year just on NCAA basketball brackets. Almost all of those bets would be placed illegally. AP

Gamblers in Kansas and Missouri could soon have a new way to legally place their bets.

Lawmakers in both states are considering legislation to legalize sports betting. They want to be ready if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the federal law that now limits sports gambling to just a handful of states.

Reasonable citizens can argue over the moral implications of wagering. But this much is not in dispute: Millions of Americans now wager billions of dollars on sporting events.

Those bracket-busting NCAA basketball games you’re watching on TV? The American Gaming Association says bettors will plunk down $10 billion this year just on the outcome of those games. Almost all of those bets will be placed illegally.

Americans bet $15 billion on the Super Bowl. Together, gamblers wager $150 billion a year, according to one estimate, to make money from the outcome of football, baseball, hockey and other sports.

That activity could be taxed and regulated if sports gambling is legalized. That’s why it’s important — and wise — for legislators to work now on a framework for sports gaming in the future.

In December, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case brought by New Jersey. The state objects to a federal law that effectively limits sports betting to Nevada, Oregon, Delaware and Montana.

The legal dispute has less to do with gambling than what the federal government can and can’t tell states to do. But the impact is clear: If the court throws out the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, states will be free to legalize sports wagering.

The court’s decision could come any day.

Kansas and Missouri are discussing similar measures for legal sports betting. In general, wagering would be supervised by a government body — the Kansas Lottery Commission or the Missouri Gaming Commission. Both might be able to sign contracts with private firms to run sports betting services.

Some proposals restrict sports wagering to physical places, such as gambling boats or racetracks. Others would allow wagering by computer or phone as well.

It isn’t clear yet how much money the states would skim off the top of wagering activity. A Kansas sports gambling bill, discussed this week, would generate “significant revenues in future years,” according to one study, but the exact amount isn’t yet known.

A well-designed sports gambling framework could provide funds for essential services such as education and public safety. And since sports wagering is going to continue anyway, the states should seize the opportunity, if it comes, to regulate and tax the industry.

Significantly, sports leagues that once objected strenuously to gambling have dialed back their opposition. Some want a piece of the action. Some bills now under discussion would set aside a percentage of revenues to give to the leagues.

Opponents of racetracks, lotteries and fixed-site gaming in Kansas and Missouri predicted disaster when elected officials and voters contemplated gambling decades ago. While there have been problems, well-regulated gaming has generally worked — providing additional funds to the states while giving adults an entertainment option they want.

Sports betting in Kansas and Missouri would follow a similar path. If the court legalizes sports gaming, Kansas and Missouri should allow residents to place their bets — and then reap the benefits.