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2015 – The Year in Poker, Part 1: Poker and Politics

As we approach the final week of the year 2015, it is time to take a look back at some of the great moments of the year and some of the less popular times.

Arguably the dominant story throughout the calendar year was the continued fight in the political spectrum over online poker. The fight was carried out not only on the state front but on the federal one as players for billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson refused to back away from their threats to ban online gaming of any kind, including poker. For once, however, the news by the end of the year turned out in the pro-gaming personnel’s favor.

After the 114th U. S. Congress was seated in early January, the slate was clean for online gaming and poker. A late threat in the throes of the conclusion of the previous Congressional session to insert anti-online gaming legislation into the omnibus bill (a bill that was necessary for the continued function of the government) had been thwarted, but two men continued to push the drive. In the House of Representatives, Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz picked up the Adelson baton in reintroducing the “Restoration of America’s Wire Act of 2015” (or RAWA for short), a bill that was essentially the same legislation introduced in 2015 (any bills on the table from the last Congress died with the new Congress being seated), in February. Although he took a bit longer due to his dalliance with a run for the Presidency, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham also introduced RAWA legislation later in the year.

While Graham had his bill in the Senate, it was Chaffetz who was tasked with carrying the water for Adelson in pushing the House version of the bill. Chaffetz conducted a hearing on HR 707 (the nomenclature for the RAWA bill) in March in his subcommittee, the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, and attempted to stack the deck with only anti-online gaming witnesses offering their opinions before adding a neutral witness. Overall, the hearing was derided as an example of crony capitalism and an overreach of the federal government into an area usually reserved for the states.

Chaffetz would not let up, however. After letting RAWA simmer for some time on the back burner, he was able to capture the main stage of a House committee to try once again to push RAWA along its trail. In early December, Chaffetz would have the floor of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform – a major committee in the House – and once again attempted to weight the witnesses that he handpicked for testimony. This time around, there was a major opposition to Chaffetz and the RAWA bill from virtually everyone not named “Chaffetz.”

Fellow Republicans took an opposing stance to Chaffetz, something almost unheard of in the House, in deriding Chaffetz’s bill on a litany of reasons. Despite Chaffetz trying to say that the bill was for “state’s rights,” many Republican members of the Committee stepped away from Chaffetz and the bill over cronyism and the 10th Amendment, staking their place as opponents of its passage. Testimony also went against Chaffetz and RAWA as Nevada State Senator Mark Lipparelli – who apparently was supposed to support Chaffetz but was pro-online gaming in that he established the framework in Nevada as one of his last acts as Chairman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, one of three states to have online gaming and/or poker – ripped apart the “straw men” arguments presented by others on the panel. By the end of the day, Chaffetz wasn’t even chairing his own hearing anymore, preferring to slink off into the shadows to lick his wounds.

While the federal threat against online gaming and poker was halted for the moment, the drive in the state-by-state regulation of the industry was stuck in neutral. Since the flurry of states that passed online gaming regulations in 2013 – Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware – there has been little to no movement on the political front in the state capitols. There were some creaking steps forward, however, making 2016 a year where some more states might step into the fray.

California drew attention for the first part of the year as it pondered the question of regulating online poker for its state. There was a committee vote on AB 431 in April that passed by a unanimous vote, but the vote on that bill was simply as a “placeholder” until the relevant parties could come to some agreement (re:  who would be allowed to corner the market) as to how to proceed. By August, the hopes that California – which would be a prominent jewel for online gaming/poker regulation – would join the threesome from 2013 had died out, but hopes were seeded for the coming year.

As California faded into the woodwork, Pennsylvania began to step up as the next likely contender to enter the U. S. online gaming and poker industry. Faced with a sizeable budget deficit and more than five months overdue in presenting a budget for the state, both Republicans and Democrats began to entertain the idea of passing online gaming regulations, looking for an initial boost of about $ 100 million from the licensing of online sites and software providers and a long-term boost from the regulation and taxation of casino games and poker. No more than four bills were presented over the course of the year, with Pennsylvania HB 649 (introduced by Representative John Payne) taking the lead. HB 649 even went as far as being voted out of committee (18-8) and readied for introduction into the Pennsylvania House.

Alas, by December, the hopes of some sort of online gaming regulation being included in the 2016 budget deal had fallen by the wayside. After a great deal of discussion in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, any mention of online gaming and poker being a part of the current compromise to move a budget forward have been removed and tabled for future consideration. It is still the closest that a state has come to passing some sort of legislation regarding online gaming and poker since the 2013 flurry.

Other states, including New York, Massachusetts and Illinois, have brought the subject up in their respective legislative bodies, but no actual legislation has been presented.

On the grassroots front, two men have attempted to move online gaming and poker legislation forward in their respective states. Curtis Woodard and Martin Shapiro have picked up the baton in each of their states (Washington and Florida, respectively), with each of them composing a framework legislation for consideration by politicians. The two advocates were able to speak with some of the legislators that would be important for getting any bill considered and, with some more support from fellow poker players in their states, could see some movement on the subject in 2016.

As the calendar prepares its turn to 2016, the poker community can be pleased that its advocacy has helped to stave off several attacks. It also serves as a reminder, however, that the battle is still going on and the warriors must always be vigilant.

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