Anticipated U.S. Supreme Court ruling could become wild-card issue in 2018 Ohio election

The U.S. Supreme Court could toss a wild card into Ohio's 2018 political sweepstakes. By mid-year, the court will rule on Christie v. NCAA, deciding if states can permit their citizens to wager on sports.

The case stems from New Jersey, where voters in 2011 amended the state constitution to authorize sports betting. In 2012, the legislature passed a law allowing sports betting at the state's struggling casinos and racetracks.

That prompted the NCAA and four professional sports leagues — the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB — to file suit, arguing the New Jersey law violates federal law, specifically the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA).

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Dec. 4. While predicting court decisions is dicey, many legal analysts believe the court chose to hear the case because several justices question PASPA's constitutionality. The sports leagues won at the district and appellate court levels.

Twenty states, including Ohio, filed an amicus brief supporting New Jersey's position. They argue PASPA overextends the long-established meaning of the 10th Amendment's supremacy clause on federal-state relations.

PASPA bans sports gambling in all but four states — Delaware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon — that had pre-existing laws allowing some types of sports betting.

If the Supreme Court sides with New Jersey, the ruling could be narrowly crafted to affect only that state. But if the ruling is broad, it could enable all states to consider getting into the lucrative business of sports gambling.

A broad ruling suddenly would make sports gambling a hot-button issue in the campaigns for Ohio governor and other statewide and legislative offices.

Historically, Ohioans have been asked to sanction different forms of gambling to keep those dollars from flowing to out-of-state venues, and to recognize that wagering takes place in-state, whether it's legal or not.

In 1973, Ohioans voted 64-36 to authorize a state lottery. In 1975, they voted 54-46 to legalize the already common practice of charitable bingo. In 2009, they voted 53-47 to allow casinos to open in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo.

Soon after the casino vote, Ohio officials allowed the state's seven racetracks to install slot machines (video lottery terminals) under supervision of the Ohio Lottery Commission.

In 2016, gross gambling revenue — the amount kept by the house after payouts but before taxes — at Ohio's four casinos and seven racetracks totaled $1.7 billion. One-third of that total, or $564.7 million, was paid in taxes to state and local governments.

If the court rules in favor of New Jersey, the chance to greatly increase Ohio's gambling tax revenues through sports betting would drive the political discussion. The American Gaming Association estimates that Americans bet $150 billion illegally each year on U.S. sporting events.

Polls show Americans are becoming more comfortable with legalized sports betting. In September, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and The Washington Post released the latest. It found 55 percent in favor and 33 percent opposed, with little difference in favorability between Democrats (57 percent) and Republicans (52 percent).