Bets placed on dueling online poker bills

poker starsThis year could bring gambling to Internet users in California. For years, online poker has been legal in the United States, but not in the Golden State. Now, amidst a host of competing interests, a spate of new bills has emerged in the hope of changing that.

Four pieces of legislation have been put into play: AB9, AB167, and two identical bills, AB431 and SB278. Of these, AB9 and AB167 have attracted the most attention.

Lawmakers have hesitated to act boldly, unsure which constituencies should be treated most favorably. But after so much wrangling, some kind of consensus has seemed inevitable: as analysts have agreed, the money in online gambling is too big to ignore.

Tough choices

The market for Internet poker has grown large enough that its would-be masters haven’t hesitated to push and pull for influence in Sacramento. As U-T San Diego reported, legislators still disagree strongly, however, about how to choose among “card clubs, Indian tribes, race tracks and out-of-state gaming companies,” all of which want to play a leading role:

“Lawmakers and these groups have failed for nearly a decade to craft rules for who should control state-regulated poker sites and how much they should pay to do so. During this time, thousands of California poker players have migrated to playing online through unauthorized, often untrustworthy sites based overseas, letting industry and tax money slip away.”

Much of the uncertainty in the Legislature revolved around the way the law should treat California’s Indian tribes, some of which have proven especially eager to get in on the action. That question, in turn, has long been tangled up with controversies over federal policy.

Attention has focused around America’s biggest online poker website, an out-of-state business called Pokerstars. Because it has been working with California’s Morongo Band of Mission Indians and San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, Pokerstars has a vested interest in taking a robust share of the online poker business under a new regulatory regime.

But as the Sacramento Business Journal noted, a rival group of Indian interests, including the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, has accused Pokerstars of raking in illegal profits between 2006 and 2011, when Congress briefly had outlawed online poker as a matter of federal law.

Rival tribes, rival bills

As a result, divisions on legislation have gathered around the battle lines set by the tribes. Pechanga and Agua Caliente have sided with AB9 — authored by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale — because it contains a so-called “bad actor” clause, barring Pokerstars from entering California’s online gambling market.

Morongo and San Manuel, meanwhile, have rallied around AB167, introduced by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles. In lieu of a bad actor clause, that bill would punt to the state Department of Justice on which companies could and couldn’t participate.

In an effort to break the impasse, yet another alternative was recently introduced by State Sen. Isadore Hall, D-South Bay, and Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced. Their identical bills are AB 431 and SB 278.

In a statement, the two allies played up their potential to reach a consensus through their legislative authority:

“Hall and Gray serve as Chairmen of each legislative house’s policy committee that oversees gaming within the state and are best positioned to lead a productive dialogue on an iPoker regulatory framework. By working together, their legislation seeks to build consensus on a public policy matter that has eluded California for years.”

Persistent challenges

Despite the substantial market, the lack of movement on online gambling has been attributed to several stubborn factors. As Gatto explained at the recent iGaming Legislative Symposium, legislators have proven risk-averse, and Californians haven’t exactly pushed them to action:

“If we pass a great bill, this isn’t going to make my career in terms of the voting public, and if we don’t pass a bill it’s not going to break anyone’s career. If you went to the average person on the street, I don’t think they’d even have an opinion on this and they would just want to know am I going to see some tax dollars go to my school and my neighborhood.”

Last year, Gatto noted, no more than five constituent emails out of 57,263 sent to him concerned online poker.

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