California Assemblyman: Still a Chance for Online Poker in 2014


California Assemblyman Isadore Hall told Tribal leaders and gaming interests at Thursday's iGaming Legislative Symposium in Sacramento that he believes there is still a chance for Internet poker legislation to pass in the Golden State during 2014.

He also indicated that the Assembly would be holding an informational hearing on the issue in the next few weeks. Hall, who was the keynote speaker to open the event, serves as chair of the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee, which includes gambling-related concerns.

Two poker-only bills were introduced in the California legislature last week at the deadline to submit new legislation for the year: SB 1366, introduced by State Sen. Lou Correa, and AB 2291, introduced by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer. Currently, AB 2291 has its tribal supporters, including the influential Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, and the Correa bill is being pushed by another group of tribes, including the powerful San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. Pechanga.Net and Spectrum Gaming Group organized and produced the symposium.

It's going to take the tribes uniting behind one bill before legislation will move forward.

Bo Mazzetti, chairman of the Rincon Band of Luiseno Indians, said he thinks the tribes in California are 99% in agreement on the details of a bill and just have a few minor things to work out.

“I'm quite happy that we're all coming together,” Mazzetti said. “We're in different camps but we're getting to the big main camp together.”

The tribes have met three times in the past six weeks and are planning another meeting for mid-March.

Mark Macarro, chairman of Pechanga, didn't seem as optimistic about how close the tribes are to an agreement or of the potential for Internet poker all together.

“The revenue stream that our brick and mortar casinos represent, it's hard to truly emphasize how key that is,” Macarro said. “All my remarks are prefaced by concerns about anything that can destabilize something that's working right now.

“Over the last handful of years, we've listened to a lot of experts, hired some experts, talked to many people and authorities far and wide, and we've concluded, given our circumstances as tribal governments, that Internet gaming is in fact a bigger threat than an opportunity. And frankly, if it were up to us, Internet gaming wouldn't be coming to fruition anytime soon.”

Macarro went on to explain that unless Congress prohibits Internet gaming, which he finds highly unlikely, there is no way to stop Internet gaming from coming to the state and that a California bill that respects tribal rights is the best way forward for tribal governments.

He isn't even concerned with the amount of money Internet poker could generate for his tribe. He specified that the amount of revenue that poker generates at Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula pales in comparison to casino games such as slot machines, roulette and craps. His main desire in a bill is an adequate framework to prohibit those games, as he thinks it's possible that the introduction of iPoker would soften opposition or public opinion on full iGaming over the next 5 to 10 years.

“Frankly, we don't think there's a lot of money to be made on iPoker in California,” Macarro said. “Our biggest fear is that iPoker is an entree for Internet gaming, such as New Jersey already decided.”

Keith Sharp, an attorney representing the interests of many of California's major card rooms, including Commerce, The Bike and Hawaiian Gardens, disagreed with the negative prospects for online poker and indicated that the card clubs are ready to get behind either bill, they just want it to get done.

“From our perspective, we're very bullish on iPoker,” Sharp said. “We operate the largest poker rooms in the world here in California. We've thought from the get go that iPoker would be good for our business. There may be some with the belief that it cannibalizes your brick and mortar. We happen to believe that cross-pollination or what have you actually might be good for business.”

Neither the tribes nor the card clubs were concerned about the conviction on voter fraud charges of State Sen. Rod Wright, for five years the legislature's biggest advocate for bringing online poker to the state. This week, Correa took over as chair of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee that handles gaming issues, giving online poker another friend heading the key committee. However, Correa might lack the influence previously wielded by Wright, particularly given that term limits make this his last year in office.

The Indian tribes and card rooms actually see Wright's removal from the equation as a positive because the 18-year veteran of the California legislature was insistent on the inclusion of the state's race tracks as eligible to run online poker, which is not allowed for in either of the current bills.

“I think he was having an outsized influence on the conversation and I think his personality kind of elbowed people out, so I think his departure will mean a more balanced conversation for all the stakeholders,” Macarro said.

Richard Schuetz, commissioner of the California Gambling Control Commission, revealed during the lunch keynote that he believes the state is ready for iPoker. He said the commission was given a mandate by the governor's office to prepare for the possibility of Internet gaming in 2011.

Over the past three years, the commission has worked to acquire literacy in the iGaming area. He said they now understand what geolocation means, the difference between triangulation, IP address mapping and Wi-Fi database mapping. They understand what payment processing and age verification is about. They've developed a worldwide database of regulations, and have traveled mostly at their own expense to visit people and learn more about Internet gaming regulations, including with the gaming commissioners in Nevada and New Jersey.

“If you take the three existing systems that are now up and running, that equals one-third of our population,” Schuetz said. “The point I am trying to make is that we're trying to get this right. I've tried to explain that the stakes are huge, and we think we can get it right ourselves. I'm a Californian, and I believe between us and our tribal partners, we can get this right.

“I believe that if this is the will of the people, if it is the will of the legislature, if it is the will of the government, that we can do this and do one hell of a job so that when we do it, it will be like everything else — better than anybody else on the planet.”

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