State Gambling Legalization Spurs National Effort

by | April 2, 2015

By Anna M. Tinsley

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton is ready to ante up again.

Barton, who has supported legalizing online poker for years, plans to file a bill to do so in the next month or so.

"It's very ironic that Texas hold 'em poker is played everywhere legally except in Texas," said Barton, R-Ennis, whose district includes parts of Arlington. "But one of these days that will change."

The issue of legalizing online poker or online gambling is getting an early start in the 114th congressional session, after a hearing last week on a bill that would do the opposite of what Barton wants.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, has proposed a bill that would eliminate all types of online gambling.

"Putting an app on every phone that allows people to gamble wherever they are is not a good idea," Chaffetz has told reporters, adding that this is an "important moral argument."

Big money is backing Chaffetz's bill, which he also filed last session. Billionaire casino owner and major political donor Sheldon Adelson, along with other online gambling opponents, wants to see gambling only in brick-and-mortar casinos.

The dueling bills promise a high-stakes fight, with a $2 billion-plus online poker industry hanging in the balance that could last for months or years.

Barton predicts that the cards will fall his way, someday: "Folks who think they can stand in a pulpit and tell people how to run their lives and tell states how to run their businesses don't see the same Constitution I do."

People already play poker online. But most online gamblers are using offshore websites that aren't subject to U.S. law.

That means winnings can't be taxed and games can't be regulated to make sure they are fair and accurate.

The issue of online gambling is up in the air _ and before Congress _ because of a 2011 Justice Department ruling regarding the Wire Act of 1961, which restricts betting over telecommunication systems that cross state or national borders.

In a departure from previous rulings, the department said the act applies only to sports betting.

Since that ruling, Delaware, New Jersey and Nevada have moved forward with laws to legalize websites offering casino-type games including poker, blackjack and slot machines.

Some states also used the Justice Department ruling as legal grounds to start selling lottery tickets online.

Barton said his bill would do much the same as others he has filed. It would legalize online poker and give each state an opportunity to decide whether to allow online gaming.

"It's poker only," he said. "It doesn't apply to the lottery or any other games of chance."

He said his bill would set up protections to make sure children can't gamble. Any player would have to use a debit card, not a credit card. And a regulatory agency would monitor and set limits on anyone who might seem to be spiraling out of control.

"The fear that someone will lose their house or run up credit card debt, that's not going to happen," Barton said.

On the other hand, Chaffetz has filed the Restoration of America's Wire Act, aimed at restoring the original interpretation of the act and preventing online gambling.

"Congress has the responsibility to debate these regulations openly and should not allow bureaucrats to unilaterally change the law behind closed doors," he has said. "Until that debate takes place, Congress must restore the long-standing interpretation of the Wire Act."

Last year, attorneys general in 16 states including Texas asked Congress to restore the previous interpretation of the act. And governors in Texas and South Carolina have written to Congress expressing concern about the Justice Department decision.

Not everyone is buying into the argument.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Houston, said he is concerned that a ban on online poker could create a black market for gaming.

And Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., worries that it could infringe on states rights. "States should be allowed to decide this question for themselves, and we should not take any action that would overturn such state laws," he said.

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