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An Air Force Academy football game in Colorado Springs. With the passage of Proposition DD, Coloradans would be able to bet on collegiate sports starting in May 2020. (Mark Byzewski, via Creative Commons)

In a nail-biter of a race, the legalization of Colorado sports betting — and the millions it would generate for water projects — appeared too close to call late Tuesday.

By 10 p.m., with perhaps tens of thousands of ballots left to count, the margin between yes and no on Proposition DD was less than 0.1 of a percentage point. For a few minutes, the result was even tied 50% to 50%.

A projection at the pro Proposition DD watch party in downtown Denver showing the race tied at 50% to 50% on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“It’s going to be a long night,” Curtis Hubbard, a spokesman for the Proposition DD campaign, said in between checking results and huddling with a small group still left at a campaign watch party in a Denver bar. 

Hubbard said he thinks that late ballots submitted in the Denver area will “come back and push us over the finish line, over 50%,” once they are counted. “I’m betting on Denver,” he said with a laugh. 

If voters approve Prop. DD, Colorado would become the 19th state to allow sports betting since the U.S. Supreme Court struck a prohibition in 2018. The measure seeks to tax sports wagers at 10% of casinos’ net proceeds, the revenue from which — conservatively estimated at between $6 million to $15 million annually in the first three years, but potentially as much as $29 million a year — would be split a few ways. 

The bulk of what’s raised would be slated to pay for Colorado’s water management plan, while the rest would be shared by the Division of Gaming, local governments and efforts to address gambling addiction.

The tax revenue would be the first dedicated funding source for Colorado’s water projects, but it’s barely a drop when you take into consideration that the Colorado Water Plan has a price tag of as much as $40 billion. The plan was created by former Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2013, and current Gov. Jared Polis is working to complete and fund it. 

One takeaway from the results: Thousands of people turned in their ballots leaving Proposition DD blank, compared to Prop. CC — which asked voters to remove state tax spending caps but failed.

Hubbard said it wasn’t clear why voters had decided not to vote on DD. “I think we’re going to have to dig deeper,” he said. “If you’re a Republican, it may be that you don’t like tax increases and decided not to vote. If you’re a Democrat it might be that you think sports betting is not something Colorado needs.”

The ballot measure’s language was also fairly confusing — asking voters to approve a $29 million tax increase on top of whether to legalize sports betting — which could have contributed to the undervote. 

MORE: TABOR stands strong in Colorado as Proposition CC fails and voters refuse to allow more state spending

Here’s how sports betting would work for Coloradans if Prop. DD passes: Starting in May, people 21 and older would be able to legally wager on everything from professional sports and esports to collegiate games and the Olympics. The 33 casinos in Colorado would manage the betting either at their locations in Cripple Creek, Central City and Black Hawk or online and through apps. 

(Casinos run by the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes in southwest Colorado would not be affected.)

The 77-acre Sweetwater Lake above the Colorado River near Dotsero. The bulk of the revenue from sports betting, as much as $29 million, would go toward water projects under Proposition DD. (Provided by The Conservation Fund)

It’s likely that sportsbooks companies that are already operating around the country, like DraftKings or FanDuel, would manage the betting for the casinos. They are certainly hoping to cash in on Colorado sports betting, with the two companies spending a combined $1.5 million to ensure Prop. DD’s passage. 

Supporters of the ballot measure had a war chest of well over $2 million. Their opposition, by comparison, was much more limited. 

The two largest groups working against Prop. DD were the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University, which argued that gambling is sinful and harms the poor, and environmental groups, like WildEarth Guardians. The latter argued the Colorado Water Plan is damaging to rivers by paying for more dams.

MORE: The opposition to Proposition DD is coming from the faith-based and environmental communities

On Election Day, voters who spoke with The Colorado Sun were more focused on the sports betting aspect of the measure than the use of tax revenue it may generate.

“It’s going to happen anyways,” said unaffiliated voter John Michael Herrera, clad in a Denver Nuggets jersey as he left a downtown Denver polling place. “If it can be regulated and they can use that money, then I’m all for that.” 

Lauren Indovino, who said she is a liberal Democrat, echoed that sentiment and said she liked the idea of the tax revenue going toward water projects.

But others took issue with sports betting as a funding source. 

“It creates more problems than it solves,” said Emily Przekwas as she dropped off her ballot — which contained a “no” vote on Prop. DD — in downtown Littleton on Tuesday.  “I think it’s predatory. The economy should be built by more sustainable solutions than gambling.”

Maricella Biernacki, 21, an unaffiliated voter, cast a vote against Prop. DD at Christ Church in Denver. She said her decision was based on principle. “I don’t really support gambling,” she said, “especially for sports.”

If passed, Proposition CC would also mark the first time Colorado voters have expanded gambling in the state since 2008. Limited-stakes gambling at casinos was legalized in 1991.

MORE: Here’s a roundup of the most important 2019 local election results in Colorado

The states that already allow sports betting are: New Jersey, West Virginia, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York, Mississippi, Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee. Washington, D.C., has also legalized sports betting.

Legislatures in other states, including North Dakota, Arizona, Texas and Washington, have weighed whether to allow gambling on sports but ultimately rejected it. 

Staff writers Jennifer Brown and John Frank contributed to this report.

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...