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July 24, 2014

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LETTER FROM WASHINGTON:

Online poker bill in a holding pattern despite optimism for federal action

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Steve Marcus

Congressman Joe Heck, R-Nev., smiles as someone’s ringtone plays George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” during a town hall meeting with constituents at Pacific Pines Senior Apartments in Henderson on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013.

Though Nevada recently passed its own online gambling law, Nevada’s congressional delegation wants you to know it’s still talking about getting an Internet poker bill done at the federal level.

“Sen. (Dean) Heller and I have talked about that at great length in the last month,” Sen. Harry Reid told reporters recently.

“There have been several discussions,” Rep. Joe Heck told the Sun’s editorial board. “There’s still a sense of urgency to try and get something done sooner rather than later.”

But polite conversations between politicians aside, is there any substantive, directed process under way to produce a poker bill before it’s too late for federal intervention?

Those who have been past architects of the effort — from Reid’s chief of staff to top casino lobbyists — say no.

“Honestly, I have not heard much more than what I’ve read in the paper,” said Gina Polovina, a lobbyist with Boyd Gaming. “They say something’s coming, but I haven’t seen or heard anything additional yet.”

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid addresses a joint session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013.

That poker legislation would be on hold in Congress is not particularly surprising: For the past two congressional terms, Nevada lawmakers have stated their desire to pursue such a measure early, only to end up desperately hunting for votes in the last few months of the session and ultimately, abandoning the effort.

Nonetheless, the window for a federal bill regulating online poker and rendering all other forms of Internet gambling illegal in 2013 is quickly closing.

The outlook for such a bill is bleak “if something’s not moving, or in the process of moving, by June or July,” Caesars Entertainment lobbyist Jan Jones said. “At the rate states are moving now, this is not just about the federal bill anymore. It’s not happening in a solo universe.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, seven states have recently considered measures to launch or expand online gaming ventures. Three states — including Nevada — have enacted bills inaugurating Internet gaming within their borders. Several additional states are exploring bills to define the legality of Internet gaming.

Soon, the point of federal legislation could be rendered moot, advocates of a federal bill argue, because there will be too many state systems that would need to be grandfathered into new federal rules.

“Now that the state’s going, we may need to reassess where we’re going federally,” Heck suggested last month, though when pressed for detail, he admitted he didn’t have any fresh ideas to share. “We’re still trying to codify something around a unified delegation, the industry and folks with a vested interest in trying to get an Internet poker bill done.”

That doesn’t leave casinos watching the calendar much hope for a federal solution — even if they are not quite ready to give up entirely.

“You’re safer to think it’s in a holding pattern,” Jones said. “That doesn’t mean it couldn’t change.”

Casino lobbyists think they might see a new poker bill from the House — for example, if Rep. Joe Barton of Texas reintroduces his legislation. But so far, all signs are quiet from the Senate, which is where the Nevada delegation has agreed a poker bill must begin if it’s to gain any traction.

“The industry can’t be blamed right now,” Jones said. “This is up to the elected leaders.”

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