California is running out of time to ante up for online poker

A sample poker game is played on the soon-to-be-launched Internet gambling website in Las Vegas in 2013. Supporters of online poker are trying again to get a bill passed in California’s Legislature.
A sample poker game is played on the soon-to-be-launched Internet gambling website in Las Vegas in 2013. Supporters of online poker are trying again to get a bill passed in California’s Legislature. The Associated Press

After more than six years of debate and deliberation, the time has come for California to finally pass legislation to authorize and regulate Internet poker. It is the right thing to do for millions of poker players in the state and for the state’s budget. And failure to act now could mean California – and every other state – could lose the ability to act at all on this important consumer issue.

There are four Internet poker bills that have been introduced so far in the Legislature (Assembly Bill 9, AB 167, AB 431 and Senate Bill 278), with the potential for more as the year progresses, yet the window to pass legislation is closing fast.

That’s because uber-wealthy casino magnate and conservative mega-donor Sheldon Adelson is again leading a charge in Congress to trample states’ rights by prohibiting their ability to authorize, regulate and tax Internet poker within their own borders. It’s unclear whether Adelson can muster the votes for a federal ban, but his “spend whatever it takes” attitude should wake up state legislators, who need to take their destinies into their own hands and act to protect the rights of their citizens.

According to a survey conducted by the Poker Players Alliance, an estimated 15 million Americans play real-money online poker, including millions of Californians. Unfortunately they are doing so on unregulated foreign sites with operators who are completely unaccountable to regulators and law enforcement, and who offer zero consumer protection.

Authorizing and regulating Internet poker in California is the only way to provide security and safety. As has been proved in other states and countries, a well-regulated online poker market can ensure protection of players’ winnings, weed out fraud and collusion, prevent underage play and detect problem gamblers – all while ensuring that online poker operators are held to the highest standards of accountability and ethics.

The scare tactics being spewed by anti-poker lobbyists simply do not pass the credibility test. The same technology safeguards that allow consumers to safely bank, shop and even complete real estate transactions online also exist to allow and promote a vibrant and well-regulated online poker market.

Also, authorizing and regulating Internet poker enables state governments to collect revenue that is currently benefiting only offshore economies. According to an analysis released by a coalition of California tribes, a legal and licensed intrastate online poker market could generate $845 million for state government and more than 2,600 new jobs within five years.

So in the six years that California has been debating this issue, hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenue for the state has already been lost, to the detriment of programs like education and health care.

What’s it going to take to finally get over the hump?

Most importantly, all of the interested parties – tribes, card rooms, race tracks, labor unions, online poker operators and others – must come together in a joint effort to move a bill forward. Fights over who should be licensed, whether certain interests and companies should be included and whether the Legislature should define “who’s in and who’s out” have been a game-stopper in all past attempts.

These gaming interests must put aside their competitive squabbles and come together to create a market that is inclusive, with a range of regulated providers. Not every operator deserves a state license, but regulators at the California Department of Justice and the California Gambling Control Commission, not legislators, should be in charge of determining the suitability of participants.

For players, a vibrant, competitive market requires a range of choices. The more limited the market, the less successful Internet poker in California will be in terms of consumer choice and revenue for the state.

State legislators need to understand that this is an important issue, and one that’s just not that complicated. Poker is legal in California and has been for more than a century. Legislators don’t balk at online retail stores, online banks or online grocers, and they shouldn’t consider Internet poker any differently.

But if California legislators continue to stall, they risk losing this opportunity altogether. That would be a shame.

Steven J. Miller is California state director of the Poker Players Alliance, which represents more than 1.2 million poker players and enthusiasts.