Online poker lobby wants more GOP lawmakers at table

Lobbyists who advocate legalizing online poker are on the prowl for a new Republican to champion their cause in the Senate.

Former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) had been a reliable supporter of online poker, but he retired last year after making a last-ditch effort to pass legislation with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Gambling interests are eager to revisit Internet poker legalization — a top priority for Reid’s casino-dominated home state — but lobbyists for the gaming industry doubt the effort will succeed until a Republican ally is found from outside Nevada who can broaden the issue’s appeal.

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“That's important to do. We want to make sure that this is not Nevada-centric. It's important to find someone who sees the wisdom of going forward with the federal bill,” said Frank Fahrenkopf, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association. “It just makes sense that this important legislation has bipartisan support.”
 
Fahrenkopf said the American Gaming Association has been talking to Republican senators from outside of Nevada about joining onto legislation to legalize online poker that the group anticipates will be introduced in the Senate. Fahrenkopf declined to share the names of the senators who have been approached.

Reid and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) are already working together on the online poker issue, but the gaming industry is looking to broaden support for the bill beyond the nation’s gaming capitals of Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
 
“Sen. Reid has been great. Sen. Heller has been great. But this is a national issue, not just a Nevada or a New Jersey bill, so the conventional wisdom is we need someone outside of the states of Nevada and New Jersey to help be in the lead. I say the more, the better, for this or any issue,” said former Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.), the president of Porter Gordon Silver Communications who has lobbied for gaming interests in the past.

Kyl’s support gave serious weight to last year’s online poker push. Nevertheless, time ran out on the legislative session before the bill could be introduced.

“The immediate need is for someone to play the Kyl role — a Republican with conservative bona fides with a law-and-order background,” said a lobbyist working on online gaming. “It is good to go beyond Nevada. My guess would be he [Heller] would want someone else in the GOP working on this as well.”
 
Heller has been reaching out to GOP senators to discuss online poker, according to a spokeswoman.
 
“Sen. Heller and Sen. Reid are continuing to work closely together on this issue, while at the same time, Sen. Heller is consistently reaching out to his Republican colleagues. In fact, he held meetings on this very topic as recently as last week,” said Chandler Smith, a spokeswoman for Heller.

The House will also see action on Internet gambling this year.
 
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) plans to re-introduce his online poker bill later this summer, according to a spokesman. In addition, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) will offer an online gaming bill next week.
 
“Rep. King plans on introducing his legislation next week,” said Kevin Fogarty, a spokesman for King, noting more details will be available on King's online gaming legislation then.
 
The American Gaming Association strongly supports a “federal online poker-only bill,” according to Fahrenkopf, and plans to review King’s legislation when it’s introduced.
 
“If it is more than online poker, we would take it to our board and let our board make a decision on whether to support it or not,” Fahrenkopf said.
 
Lawmakers in Washington have been trying to pass federal online gaming legislation for years, but it was given added urgency when the Justice Department found in 2011 that the Wire Act only prohibits online gambling on sports. That allowed other games of chance to be played on the Internet, and several states have since moved to legalize online gambling.
 
Three states — Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey — have legalized some or all forms of online gambling so far. Legislators in several other states, like California and Texas, are considering bills this year to do the same.
 
State officials, including the National Governors Association, pushed back last year against Reid’s online poker bill. They will likely lobby again against federal efforts to regulate online gambling.
 
“We believe the federal government should be respectful of states' rights to regulate online gaming, and we see these bills as an affront to states' sovereignty,” said James Ward, committee director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
 
State lotterie directors also opposed the online poker bill, traveling to Washington last year to lobby against it. Charlie McIntyre, executive director of the New Hampshire Lottery, said his colleagues would like to hear from lawmakers before they move forward on Internet gambling legislation.
 
“We would like to have been part of the conversation before it became an issue last year. And we would like to be part of that conversation if this becomes an issue again this year,” said McIntyre, who is also head of the government relations committee for the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries.

Proponents of a federal regulatory regime for online poker say legislation is needed to create a single set of rules for Internet gaming.
 
“Only three states have considered it, but you already have a patchwork quilt of regulations when it comes to online gambling,” Fahrenkopf said. “We are going to have a real mess when it comes to protections for consumers.”
 
With opposition anticipated from lotteries and state officials, it will be difficult to move Internet gambling legislation. Porter said all parts of the gaming industry — including casinos, racetracks, Native American tribes and state lotteries — need to unify for the bill to stand a chance.
 
“The industry needs to be on a similar page and start working together. It's a highly competitive industry, so they won't agree on every point, but they do need agree on the same set of principles. Without that, moving this bill will be tough to do,” Porter said.