California Tribes and Horse Tracks Making Progress Toward Online Poker Bill
Disagreement on whether to allow horse racing tracks to participate in online poker may have been the biggest factor derailing California's legislation this year. Robyn Black, a lobbyist for the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, believes that progress is being made that will allow for the bill to move next year.
“We've been communicating with tribes and I think at some point in 2015 we're actually going to see one of these bills move, and I expect horse racing to be a part of that,” Black said. “It's probably going to happen in 2015, or it isn't going to happen.”
This was an interesting year for the horse racing industry in regards to online poker legislation in California. State Sen. Rod Wright, the issue's previous legislative champion, had always made sure the tracks were part of his online poker bills. With Wright out of the picture for lying about where he lived when he ran for office, the bills introduced in California for 2014 excluded the horse tracks.
It seemed as though the Indian tribes writing the bills were making a power play to limit their competition. For the first half of the year, discussion focused on the tribes and card rooms with no apparent outrage coming from horse racing and its supporters. In June, many of the tribes came together to announce having reached a consensus regarding unified language for a bill, and it still excluded the racing industry.
It was starting to look like the tribes might be able to get away with keeping the tracks out, but then the ponies fought back. It wasn't a loud and public battle, but it was obviously effective. Poker Players Alliance executive director John Pappas said in July that he was hearing the insistence on excluding the tracks was the biggest holdup on California's legislation.
When Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer officially shelved his legislation for the year in August and announced he would introduce new legislation at the beginning of next session in December, he specifically mentioned the horse racing industry as one of the interested principals that would be involved in the discussion to prepare a bill that would be amenable to all parties.
Most of the tribes originally took the position that racetracks offering online poker would be an expansion of gambling that violated tribal exclusivity. Black is confident that there is no legal basis for excluding horse racing because Internet gaming is a new entity. In fact, if any group has a claim over online wagering it would be the tracks that have offered betting on horses over the Internet in California for more than a decade.
“There is no legal basis to keep horse tracks out,” Black said. “That's just the way the tribes want it. To want to artificially limit competition in the Internet poker space because we haven't had poker would be the same as us saying we have exclusivity over the Internet so you can't be on the Internet.”
Black said that horse racing let the tribes dictate the dialogue during the first half of the year because it knew there was never going to be any movement of a bill until the tribes reached some sort of consensus. Once that happened in June, the industry kicked up its efforts and showed that it does still have some sway in the legislature.
Jones-Sawyer said that discussions would be held over the next few months to craft a bill that would appease all interests. Black said the horse racing industry is being included in those discussions.
“Some tribes remain reluctant but I think a growing number of tribal interests realize that they will not get Internet poker in California until they allow horse racing,” Black said. “There are a number of tribes that have expressed to me that they are perfectly comfortable with horse racing being included, but there remain a few powerful tribes that still don't want to see horse racing included.”
While Black is confident lawmakers wouldn't pass an online poker bill that doesn't include horse racing, she believes that result would be cause for a lawsuit.
As for the other divisive issue that got even more attention this year, Black indicated the horse racing industry is not taking sides on the inclusion of a bad actor clause.
“We feel that's a question for the legislature and regulators to address,” Black said. “We don't feel it's our place to get in the middle of that fight. We're confident they will come up with the right way to protect the gaming public.”
One area she thinks the horse racing industry can help in the push for legislation is in contradicting the fear-mongering opposition from Sheldon Adelson and his Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling.
“We've been taking wagers on the Internet for a decade and have a solid record in keeping out underage children, protecting consumer info and handling problem gamblers,” Black said. “Anyone with those concerns, just look at what horse racing has done in a decade of Internet wagering.”
Photo c/o Getty Royalty-Free Images.