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One Tribe Proposing Legalization of Internet Poker in California

8/12/09 - The Press Enterprise - View Source

By Jim Miller

SACRAMENTO - The Morongo Band of Mission Indians near Banning is at the forefront of an effort to craft legislation legalizing online poker in California.

The influential Inland tribe, which runs a successful casino off Interstate 10, has collaborated with some Southern California card clubs on a proposal to create a "tribal intrastate Internet poker consortium." It aims to make California the first state with online poker that complies with federal law.

"This would be a game for Californians, run by Californians," said Patrick Dorinson, a spokesman for the tribe. Participating tribes, card clubs and the cash-strapped state would share in the revenue, but an exact split hasn't been determined, he said.

There are an estimated 2,300 online poker sites generating $4 billion in revenue. An estimated 1 million Californians play online poker.

The sites avoid 2006 federal restrictions on online poker by operating outside the U.S. Under some legal interpretations, federal law would allow online poker when players are in the same state as computer servers hosting the games.

No bill has emerged and there is no author for the proposal so far. Any measure would be considered during the final four weeks of the legislative year after lawmakers return Monday from their summer recess.

Already, though, the idea has received a cool reception by some other tribes with casinos.

The California Tribal Business Alliance, which includes several wealthy tribes with casinos, this week announced its opposition to the idea.

In a letter, the group called the online card game proposal "ill-conceived" and warned that it could lead to "the wholesale expansion of non-Indian, off-reservation gambling in California" by potentially bringing casino-style machines to card rooms.

"It's way too complicated to rush something through at the end of session," said Alison Harvey, the alliance's executive director.

In the Inland area, the Morongo tribe belongs to the Tribal Alliance of Sovereign Indian Nations, which includes several tribes with casinos in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The normally tightknit group has taken no position on the online card game proposal. Two nearby group members with large casinos -- the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians near San Bernardino and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in the Coachella Valley -- also are neutral.

Morongo officials have been briefing tribal leaders from around the state in recent days. No other tribes have endorsed the proposal, Dorinson said.

The two legislators whose districts include the Morongo reservation and casino have not been approached about the tribe's proposal.

State Sen. John J. Benoit, R-Bermuda Dunes, questioned if there would be enough time to consider online poker legislation before lawmakers adjourn their regular session Sept. 11. Prison reform and water are expected to dominate the end-of-session agenda.

"I'm all ears. But it certainly would be an uphill battle to get it done in the time frame they're talking about," Benoit said.

Federal legislation

The online poker proposal has been in the works for several months. Talk of its introduction as a bill comes as the U.S. Senate prepares to consider related legislation.

New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez introduced a measure last week to regulate online poker and other games. In a news release, the senator's office said the legislation could raise up to $3 billion in revenue while protecting players from unscrupulous offshore poker sites.

"Pulling Internet poker out of the shadows and into the light of the law, we have the opportunity to help our economy while protecting our families," Menendez said in a statement.

Dorinson said the California proposal would ensure that revenue from online poker played here would help the state.

At least one online poker group is skeptical about the idea.

John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance, said the California proposal would give a monopoly to just a few entities. California, he said, instead should license a variety of online poker sites or host its own games. The players alliance is funded by the Canada-based Interactive Gaming Council, which represents online poker sites.

The Schwarzenegger administration does not have a position on online poker, a spokeswoman said.

Last summer, the Legislature considered a bill that would have legalized online poker. It stalled after major opposition from some tribes and tribal organizations, including the Tribal Alliance of Sovereign Indian Nations.

Political fights

Underlying the latest proposal is the recent acrimony between some of the groups involved.

In 2004, tribal casinos defeated a ballot measure pushed by card clubs and horse tracks that would have ended the tribes' monopoly on slot machines.

In 2007 and 2008, some members of the tribal business alliance spent millions in an unsuccessful campaign to overturn 2006 casino-expansion agreements between the state and the Morongo tribe, along with several others.

Last year, the tribes joined forces to push through legislation to ban devices in some nontribal bingo halls run by various charities. Critics called the devices illegal slot machines. But opponents of the bill said it hurt the charities' fundraising.

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