A Colorado House of Representatives committee approved a bill Monday that would let statewide voters decide in November whether to allow wagering on sporting events and let the state collect a 10 percent tax.
The bipartisan legislation, House Bill 1327, passed the House Finance Committee on a 9-1 vote Monday evening.
It still has to clear the House Appropriations Committee, two votes on the chamber's floor, then start over and do the same in the Senate. That's the normal route for a bill, but this expansion of the state's gambling laws has two weeks to do it before the May 3 adjournment. It was introduced last Friday.
The bill has powerful backing, with House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver, and House Republican leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, as its sponsors.
Garnett said the proposal has two main purposes: To "eliminate the black market which we know exists, and to create a competitive marketplace, but one that's not too big that it can't be effectively regulated by the Department of Revenue."
If voters allow it, wagering would go through existing Colorado casinos. The state's lone horse-racing track, Arapahoe Park in Aurora, wouldn't be included.
Local elected leaders and residents who live near Arapahoe Park told the committee they didn't want the games at the track.
"We're not open to it," Garnett said of adding the racetrack. "But I think we've gotten to a place where everyone is in a pretty good place, including the owners of the track. We wanted to be respectful of the intent of the voters when it comes to where brick-and-mortar establishments already exist to allow betting to occur."
Arapahoe Park allows betting on its horse races, but in 2014 voters statewide handily rejected Amendment 68 that would have allowed for a casino at Arapahoe Park and two future horse tracks to raise money for education.
The tax proceeds from sports wagering, which Garnett estimated at up to $20 million a year, would help fund the state's water long-range state water plan, gambling addiction treatment and other yet-to-be-named projects.
The plan to stretch out the water supply in this fast-growing state is expected to cost $100 million a year for the next 30 years.
Jon Goldin-Dubois, president of the Boulder-based conservation think tank Western Resource Advocates, called the sports-gambling proceeds "an important down payment" on the water plan.
"Funds from this bill would have an immediate impact on our state," he said, estimating the water plan could receive $10 million.
But several of Colorado's professional sports teams -- the Denver Broncos, Colorado Rockies, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Mammoth and Colorado Rapids -- sent a letter to the committee raising their concerns.
They included suggestions to protect the integrity of their sports and to give the leagues the opportunity to opt out of being bet on.
They also would like cooperation with any league investigation of misdeeds blamed on gambling.
"With the appropriate integrity provisions, the teams would support legalized sports betting in the state; as currently drafted, we do not believe that bill provides sufficient protections for the sports or consumers or fans," the letter states.
Colorado voters first allowed limited-stakes games in casino to be permitted in Cripple Creek, Black Hawk and Central City since 1991. The money supports historic preservation, community colleges and local needs.
Black Hawk, the Colorado Municipal League and the Colorado Gaming Association spoke in favor of the bill Monday.
Corey Hoffman, a lawyer representing CML and the city of Black Hawk, said the sports betting proposal is in keeping with voters' intent to keep the games located in three locations, because it hasn't been expanded in almost three decades.
Besides the statewide vote in November, the bill also would require local approval in the three gambling cities, as well.
Colorado expanded gambling, somewhat, in 2016, when Garnett and then-House Speaker Crisanta Duran passed legislation to legalize fantasy sports leagues that offer cash prizes.
A committee member, Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Commerce City, said she doesn't gamble but she supports the rights of others to weigh in on sports gambling in Colorado.
"All this bill really does is it takes it to the voters," she said. "I think they deserve the right to vote on it, whether they want to do it."