California Lawmaker Says Back to Ground Zero for Online Poker Legislation

The decade-long debate over regulating online poker in California won’t be ending anytime soon, according to Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer.

Speaking from his offices in Los Angeles during a recent interview with Online Poker Report, the sponsor of California’s latest attempt to legalize online poker – Assembly Bill 1667, the Internet Poker Consumer Protection Act – said no progress will be made this year.

Jones-Sawyer’s bill represents the culmination of over 10 years’ worth of political bickering between several stakeholders – including the Golden State’s horse racing industry, a coalition of concerned tribal organizations, civic leaders opposed to gambling expansion, and major platforms like PokerStars.

But even as his AB-1667 contains several compromises designed to ease tensions, Jones-Sawyer admitted that acrimonious debates during the last few years have derailed the legislative agenda. As he revealed to Online Poker Report, the effort to legalize online poker in California will require a proverbial rebuild:

“I don’t want to sound like a minister or psychologist, but we’ve got to start from ground zero where we’ve got to at least get people to want to try to get it done again.

When I first started on this in earnest, we were going slow and methodical, and we had some successes. We weren’t trying to rush anyone and we weren’t pitting one side against the other, as best we could.”

Jones-Sawyers’ comments refer to a previous legislative push by Assemblyman Adam Gray, who co-chairs the Governmental Organization Committee and served as co-sponsor of an earlier online gaming bill along with Jones-Sawyer.

Despite securing a pivotal agreement between racetracks and tribes last year – which would forfeit the former’s right to run online poker rooms in exchange for a $60 million stipend paid annually – Gray moved too aggressively and alienated many potential allies in the Assembly.

As Jones-Sawyer described the situation, 2017’s legislative agenda will not be highlighted by the pursuit of online poker, partly due to the controversy generated by last year’s debate:

“Obviously, we’re not going to put anything across the desk now. If you look at the Assembly, we have other big things such as the transportation bill to focus on.

This would not be a good year to put something controversial in. I think the ability to work out something next year has a bigger chance if we do some of the come-together healing things right now.”

After reaching an agreement between the racetracks and tribes, Gray attempted to broker a pact between PokerStars and the tribal coalition standing in opposition to the world’s largest online poker room reentering California.

Many stakeholders are opposed to PokerStars returning to California. The primary argument against PokerStars holds that the site gained an unfair competitive advantage between 2006 and 2011 – when the site operated unopposed within California, despite the federal government’s passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006.

To solve the so-called “bad-actor” issue, Gray initially proposed a $20 million flat fee be paid by any operator which violated the terms of UIGEA. This idea was supported by one of the tribal coalitions standing in the way of online poker progress, but opposed by the other.

Gray then abruptly reversed course, abandoning the $20 million penalty fee in favor of a five-year ban for bad actors. This shift in policy angered both sides, scuttling the once promising collaboration when it appeared that passage was all but imminent.

As Jones-Sawyer sees it, learning from Gray’s mistakes provides the key to securing online poker passage at some point in the near future:

“He may have thought there was a way to make the deal, to finally get this done. I don’t know what happened after that to unravel something for which I thought we were very close.”

Now we have to go back to the same methodical strategy as before, but we may have to go even slower because you don’t want to have people pushed up against the wall. That’s when people start to get a little nervous and strained.”