It seems that the battle over Internet poker and casino gaming is one of those never-ending sagas that plays like a Shakespearean tragedy. Most of the attention, though, has been focused on the different approaches that national governments have taken toward the growth of the online industry. Some European nations, in a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach, have started their own state-sponsored sites, with ramifications on the international scale that PokerNews has reported on previously. Here in the United States, it has almost become a yearly rite of passage to have some sort of legislation making its way through the halls of Congress. While most attention of proponents of a legalized and regulated online gaming industry have been focused on this, other events have seemingly silently taken place behind the scenes.
Perhaps it was the intent of Congress to allow this to happen. This ticklish issue, which is a subject that the federal government would like to avoid, is one that more than likely could be handled at the state government level in the minds of elected officials in the Congress of the United States, thus alleviating the pressure on national leaders. With everyone focused on the efforts of several senators and representatives in Washington, DC, the state of Washington stepped to the forefront of the Internet gaming issue and has adopted laws against online poker and gaming inside the borders of the Evergreen State.
In January of this year, Democratic State Senator Margarita Prentice introduced legislation in the Washington Senate to “reaffirming and clarifying the prohibition against internet (sic) and certain other interactive electronic or mechanical devises to engage in gambling”. The legislation, called Senate Bill 6613, also focused on keeping the state run lottery off of the Internet as well and announced severe penalties for engaging in online poker and gaming. Before it was passed out of the Senate for consideration from the Washington House of Representatives with no one voting against the bill on February 14th, the bill was amended to move the punishment for engaging in online wagering up from a gross misdemeanor to a Class C Felony, which outlines a punishment of up to ten years in prison and is usually reserved for prosecution of sex offenders who fail to register with the state under their “Megan’s Law” guidelines. After its passage in the senior hall of the state government in Olympia, it was almost like the bill was put on the fast track to the governor of the state, Democrat Christine Gregoire. The House received the bill on February 16th and, a short two weeks later, passed the bill by a 93-5 margin. With that, the bill was off to Governor Gregoire and, on March 28th, the bill became law in the state of Washington and will take effect on June 7th.
Before anyone panics over the passage of this new statute, a few issues should be taken into consideration. The state of Washington has many Indian tribes that are allowed to run their own casino operations through agreement with the state government. With the sovereignty of these tribal lands, unless there was a law on the books that prevented them from doing so, it could allow the tribes of Washington to potentially set up online casino operations that would not only violate federal laws but could also lead to an unstoppable invasion of previously offshore sites to gain a foothold on United States soil. This is apparently something that was in the works and the legislative bodies of the state of Washington stepped in to block what could be a huge thorn in their sides down the road.
With this said, though, it will be tough to remove this oncoming law from the books in the state of Washington. Overturning any part of it, from prohibiting the state lottery from being offered online to the “interaction with any device or terminal involving…any game of chance including…poker or other cards” would require a sixty percent majority of both bodies of government in the state of Washington to override the law that SB 6613 has become. As with most governmental bodies not only in the individual states but also in the federal government as well, it is close to impossible to garner this type of support to overturn a previously passed statute.
There are a couple of things that are very surprising regarding the new “law of the land” in Washington. First, there is no governing body set up to regulate this law and its enforcement. As such, don’t expect the local constabulary of the state of Washington to come banging down your door for playing online poker. Without appropriate funding, the law enforcement arms throughout the state will have much more pressing matters to work on than people playing poker or slot machines online. Furthermore, how can such a law be enforced without the state of Washington monitoring its residents and their online activities? This is a question that the passing of the legislation didn’t address and there isn’t much information on what actions are in the future regarding this side of the law for Washington residents.
Secondly, this new law is odd in that Washington has a thriving brick and mortar casino history. The sponsor of the bill, Senator Margarita Prentice, has been the recipient of several contributions from casino and gaming interests in the state and fellow Senator Jim Honeyford has been called by many pundits the greatest hope of initiating substantive regulation of the booming online poker and gaming industry in the United States. In the state of Washington, there are 65 casinos and poker rooms and residents of the state can also step across the border into Canada, where the province of British Columbia offers five more physical establishments as well. Is this new legislation a way for the state to ensure that people participate in poker and gaming in state taxed and permitted businesses? Isn’t this, in some form, a way that the state is officially sponsoring these outlets while banning participation on the Internet? And if this is true, wouldn’t this be a restriction of trade and perhaps offers a way for the law to be overturned by the State Supreme Court?
Sadly, now we don’t have to just watch the national government anymore. With other states debating enacting legislation on both sides, from Nevada and New Jersey looking to allow casinos to have the option for operating online if the question is solved on the national level, to other states, such as Illinois, who are also considering legislation to prevent their state lotteries from entering the online world, we now have to watch as each state makes their determinations on the legalities of online poker and gaming overall. As we continue to hope for a clearing of regulations regarding the Internet, poker and gaming, all we continue to get is a muddying of the waters as the states get involved.
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