The month of August could see a landmark event if a bill before the Senate Appropriations Committee is voted forward. It's next stop would be a full vote on the California Senate floor, and that could lead to legalised online poker within the state of California.
The man behind the AB2026 is Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, a Democrat from Van Nuys, and he could go down in US gambling history as the creator of the first state legalization to regulate and legalise intrastate online poker for its residents.
The full title of AB2026, which was introduced in February this year, is the California Gambling Control/Intrastate Online Poker Legalization Act, and it was originally designed to commission a full and proper study of the online poker phenomenon with a view to legalising the pastime in California.
Since then it has morphed into something far more positive after extensive debate and discussion among Californian legislators, however, and it now calls for implementing online poker legalization and regulation within the state.
The bill has its genesis in a provision of the federal Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act 2006 which permits each state to allow in-state poker provided certain conditions are met. AB2026 meets those conditions, and this has been confirmed by California legislative counsel examining the proposed law, who reported that "…the operation of online poker for intrastate transactions qualifies under the UIGEA exemption and does not violate the four federal Acts referenced in UIGEA."
Levine has shepherded AB2026 through approval in the Assembly and extensive debate in the Senate Governmental Organization Committee (GOC), prior to its being referred to its next destination – the Senate Appropriations Committee in August. Last month an amendment approved by a 6 – 1 GOC vote required the California Bureau of Gambling Control to consult with the California Gambling Control Commission (CGCC) in order to adopt regulations for the initiative no later than July 1, 2009.
AB2026's ‘citizens sponsor', the Poker Voters of America is pleased with progress. President Jim Tabilio said that the latest developments were a good sign that the legislators are taking the issue seriously, understand the importance of the bill and are asking the right questions. "The plan going forward is to bring together the potential stakeholders to help craft a final version of the bill that protects Californians who play online and maximizes revenue for the state," he said recently.
All will not be plain sailing, however. Certain tribal gaming interests appear to be worried that they may be excluded from any new online poker business, or might have to change their existing gaming compacts with the state to compete in a new dispensation, and that could mean opposition. That being the case, the support of tribal gaming interested parties is viewed as key to the bill's passage. "If they're not going to play, it's not going to happen," said Tabilio. "We want the tribes to be able to play."
Levine's amended bill calls for licensing and registration of operators with the Commission, with a registration fee charged and subject to meeting the requirements of the Commission regarding elements such as the network. Licensed gambling establishments may not offer internet poker independent of that network. The bill also makes provision for measures to be taken to ensure player protection.
"We said four months ago that the goal of Poker Voters of America was creation of a regulated online intrastate system that conforms to Federal law and protects California players by licensing legal, secure and regulated alternatives to offshore online poker," said Tabilio, speaking to the media following last month's committee hearing. "[The Committee's] vote confirms that we're on track to accomplish that goal."
Various estimates put the Californian poker population at around 2 million, and the state has seen previous attempts to legalise online poker. In previous years (see earlier InfoPowa reports), California poker player Anthony "Tuff Fish" Sandstrom started a petition calling for a state-run online poker site for residents. His petition was approved by the California Secretary of State, and scheduled for the February 2008 ballot, but for reasons that are not clear he later withdrew his application.
Levine is unlikely to abandon his proposal – he is on record as saying that he wants to see a safe, regulated and legal system that allows Californians to play poker on the Internet, and hopes to have his bill through the next hurdle by the end of August.
"We hope to have this bill passed through the legislature by the end of August and signed into law in the fall," he told reporters recently. "My hope is that it would go into effect in January of next year. We would then have the Division of Gaming Control and the Attorney General's office spend whatever brief period of time they would need to draft the appropriate regulations and hopefully sometime in the middle of next year we could actually have legal poker online in California."