Online Poker Bills Shelved in California

Measures excluding racing as licensees done for year; better bill expected in 2015.

Another California legislative session will draw to close at the end of August without action on an Internet poker bill, but in this instance, it is a victory for the state's racing industry.

The powerful tribal casino lobby had two nearly identical measures in the works that would have allowed online poker for state residents, one in the Senate and the other in the Assembly, but both are shelved for this year. Resistance to the bills, which limited potential licensees to the tribes and selected card clubs, was led in great part by the horse racing industry because of its exclusion.

It is the third consecutive year that action to get state Internet poker legislation passed has failed. Robyn Black, a lobbyist for the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, says 2015 will be the year "we are going to get it done in California."

"Horse racing has made tremendous progress this year," she said, in convincing lawmakers that it belongs in the online poker mix. She called the delay in action at the current session "a huge win" for racing.

A fresh bill more favorable to racing will likely be presented in December.

Black said the majority of the casino tribes are now in favor of allowing horse racing interests to be licensed in order to get a consensus from the Legislature, but that racing still faces resistance from some of the more powerful members.

She noted, though, that racing's argument—that online poker is not part of the state initiative that voters approved in 1998 giving tribes exclusivity for casino gaminghas gained traction. Black said she was confident that an online poker bill excluding racing would face strong obstacles once again, and that most of the tribes have come to accept that.

"It's been a good old-fashioned standoff," Black said. "But we're the ones with the moral high ground. All the tribes want to do is limit competition."

It's estimated that more than one million Californians are wagering illegally with off-shore Internet poker sites. So, the stakes are considerable for a once-powerful state racing industry seeking a new avenue of revenue with traditional sources of alternative gaming off limits.

Black pointed out that lawmakers are finally acknowledging racing's importance to the state economy as well. They want to help the industry where they can, she said, even in the face of the powerful tribal casino lobby.

She noted the tremendous reception given the owners and breeders of California Chrome  Aug. 14 when both halves of the Legislature unanimously passed a resolution honoring the colt's achievements during the 2014 Triple Crown campaign.

"We've been complacent for a number of years," she said, because of the difficulty in fighting tribal clout. "But we have something they don't have, and that's horses."