Jones-Sawyer: No California Online Poker Bill in 2018
California Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer said he has no plans to reintroduce an online poker bill in 2018. As the deadline to introduce new bills into the California State Legislature is a matter of days away, that means California online poker is dead for another year.
Reggie Jones-Sawyer has been the staunchest supporter of California iPoker over the past few years, backing a bill called the “Internet Poker Consumer Protection Act” several times. The Assemblyman has taken up where a variety of California lawmakers had tried and failed before: State Sen. Roderick Wright, State Sen. Lou Correa, Assemblyman Mike Gatto, and Assemblyman Adam Gray.
In 2017, Jones-Sawyer said he would not introduce poker legislation, because the different sides needed “time to heal” after a bruising 2016 negotiation. It appears that the two sides need another year to cool off.
Those close to the situation say the only way an online poker bill might pass the California State Legislature would be if a bill legalizing sports betting was attached to it. Unlike Mississippi, Connecticut, and West Virginia, it appears California will wait to see if the US Supreme Court strikes down PASPA before going to the trouble.
Internet Poker Consumer Protection Act
When he declined to enter his poker bill in 2017, Assemblyman Jones-Sawyer said, “There’s been a little progress in that area. We’ve gone through extensive research and a really robust discussion talking to proponents and opponents.”
“The process was very contentious, and some people still need some time to heal. The best thing that came out of those discussions was the fact that we were discussing it. People were very open and honest about their feelings for online poker. I think we provided, here in our office, a safe place to express their feelings.”
California has a lot of land-based gaming interests, with over 145 brick-and-mortar gambling venues. Each of those interests has to be factored into a California online poker bill. Or better put, the wealthiest and most influential of those land-based interests have to be considered.
Morongo v. Pechanga
On the one side has been the Morongo Tribe of Cabazon and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, who supported a wide-open California online poker bill. The Morongo Tribe and San Manuel Band signed a deal with PokerStars which would have made them the dominant poker sites in the new California Internet gaming market. The deal included Los Angeles poker clubs, such as the Bicycle Club.
On the other side was the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, the Pala Tribe, and the Agua Caliente Tribe. These tribes opposed the entry of PokerStars into the California poker market, because they knew the world’s largest poker site (with roughly 70% of the traffic) would weight the odds against them.
What Is a Bad Actor?
Pechanga and its allies argued that PokerStars was a “bad actor”, so they should not be allowed to prosper off California’s poker player. Assembly Bill 167 once defined what a bad actor was, stating: “The person [who] has been convicted in a court of competent jurisdiction of a felony consisting of either having accepted a bet over the Internet in violation of United States or California law, or having aided or abetted that unlawful activity.”
Because PokerStars defied the UIGEA federal ban on online gambling between 2006 and 2011, the card site should be punished. At times, that meant a total ban on PokerStars. At other times, it meant a 5 or 10-year moratorium when PokerStars could not enter the California gaming market.
Both coalitions had their lobbying efforts. Both groups had their favorite lawmakers to champion their causes in the California State Legislature. Because more tribes did not have a corporate deal with PokerStars, that meant most of California’s gaming tribes supported the “bad actor” legislation.
Commercial Poker Clubs
It probably hurt that the commercial poker rooms were part of the Morongo/PokerStars deal, because of longstanding rivalries between the tribal and commercial gaming interests of California. As Reggie Jones-Sawyer noted, “There’s some other issues with tribes and cardrooms that probably need to be resolved before we can move forward with this thing. I’m hoping we resolve some of that this year.”
The dispute was not resolved in 2017. The poker clubs argue they need player-banked games to stay in business. Along with California Blackjack and card-based versions of Craps and Roulette, it is how commercial gaming operators skirt California’s bans on many forms of gambling. Tribes like Pechanga, Pala, and Agua Caliente resent those attempts to get around hard-negotiated monopolies.
San Manuel Leaves PokerStars Coalition
In retrospect, April 2016 might be looked at the pivotal moment in California’s online poker legislative fight. Jacob Coin, the Executive Director of Public Affairs for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, announced in a letter that it was withdrawing from the coalition championing the inclusion of PokerStars in the state’s online poker framework.
One anonymous tribal leader described the San Manuel decision as a “titanic shift in the landscape”. The San Manuel finally decided the fight was not worth it. Or perhaps, Jacob Coin’s tribe had lost patience with PokerStars. Also in April 2016, David Baazov, the CEO of Amaya (parent company of PokerStars), had to step down from his role with the company, due to charges of insider trading back in Canada. It was perhaps one scandal too many for Amaya/PokerStars, making it all-the-harder to argue for the company’s inclusion.
Since April 2016, no California legislator has introduced a new online poker bill. Reggie Jones-Sawyer, Mike Gatto, and Adam Gray saw the handwriting on the wall. California Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who sought to pass online poker in 2015 and 2016, might have summed up the situation best when he said, “The status quo is a lost opportunity. California could receive significant revenue for merely regulating and legitimizing an industry that Californians already participate in, but send their dollars overseas.”
Gatto added, “California has led the world in computer and Internet innovation, and there is no good reason why we can’t continue to lead with a sensible online-poker framework.”
Maybe so, but not in 2018, and maybe not for several years to come.