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Pennsylvania is the talk of the online poker industry in the United States. Hopes for others to join the small contingent of states offering legalized poker or gambling in America were dashed when California and New York failed to move on proposals this summer. While Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware stand alone at the moment, Pennsylvania may still join the exclusive group.

The budget deficit in Pennsylvania has been trouble for the state’s lawmakers throughout the year. And it seemed like a solid opportunity for those in support of expanding the gaming industry to include an online contingent to offer a bill as a solution. In February, Rep. John Payne did just that with House Bill 649. State Senator Kim Ward introduced SB 900 on the Senate side as well.

Despite multiple pushes toward hearings and votes for the bills during the year, the proposed online gaming legislation seemed to be destined for the trash bin for 2015. That was until the budget crisis level increased this month, and word came that gambling expansion was again on the table as a consideration for additional revenue.

A hearing in the House Gaming Oversight Committee was scheduled for this week  but was cancelled at the last minute. Even so, reports coming out of Pennsylvania say that the bills are alive and still under consideration.

At this critical time, Judah Rosenstein has taken on the role of State Director for the Poker Players Alliance in Pennsylvania. He spoke with us about his background, his role with the PPA, the current state of state legislation, and the future of online poker and gaming in Pennsylvania.

What is your personal history with poker? 

I never played poker until I got my first job as an attorney with a small law firm in Northern New Jersey in 1998. Some of the younger associates got together once a week to play and, at the start, I simply thought joining them would be a good way to help my career. But eventually, I got really tired of losing, so I went to the bookstore and picked up my first poker book: Lou Krieger’s ‘Hold “Em Excellence: from Beginner to Winner’. What an eye-opener! That led to more books, instructional and WSOP videos, playing online and trips to Atlantic City, Foxwoods and Vegas. As my skills and appreciation for the nuances of the game grew, so did my respect for the rich tradition that poker has enjoyed in our country.

What prompted you to seek this role with the PPA? 

I have always believed that reasonable people can differ on political issues. However, I recognized early on that opposition to the legalization of online poker had little to do with reason or empirical evidence, and was instead grounded in greed and lingering societal misconceptions about the “scourge” of problem gambling. I initially joined the PPA because I was proud to support an organization that understands and respects the game I love, as well as its players, and that was fighting to preserve a basic right to do something in my home that I could already legally do outside of it. When the opportunity presented itself for me to take a larger role in the effort, I did not think twice about volunteering.

As the new state director, what exactly will you be doing? 

It’s kind of funny because the position was presented as being, in large part, the eyes and ears of the organization in PA. Right now, it feels like everyone’s eyes and ears are on PA! I will continue working to help organize the membership in the state, making sure that we speak with one voice and, more importantly, that that voice is reaching where it needs to, when it needs to. This will include verbal and written communications, as well as interacting with legislators as needed.

The first serious talk of online poker legislation in PA came in 2013 from Rep. Tina Davis. There was some support but a lot of criticism of her bill. How has the proposed legislation changed since then? 

Since that first piece of legislation was introduced, legislators have had the advantage of seeing how online gambling operates in other states, as well as newer studies focused specifically on its safety and financial impact.  Relying on that new information, the current legislation has more realistic provisions regarding who should be permitted to operate the sites, how much they should pay for a license, how players will register and at what rate they should be taxed.

What is the current status of SB900? 

The PA House Gaming Oversight Committee is expected to vote very soon on their version of Internet gaming legislation, HB649. In doing so, the House would lay the groundwork for iGaming to be included in the ongoing budget negotiations. Senate Bill SB900 is not currently on the discussion calendar, but the Senate will definitely weigh-in should the House pass its bill.

Is the PPA in support of SB900 as it is written? 

As an organization created to protect the interests of poker players, the PPA does support SB900 as written.

What does support and opposition look like for online gaming for Democrats and Republicans, i.e. a divide down party lines? 

Support and opposition for online gaming, and any individual legislator movement on the issue, has seemingly been motivated by issues other than party affiliation. There are proponents on both sides of the aisle, which is why passage of Internet gaming legislation is increasingly being talked about as a viable option to help solve the current budget impasse.

House Majority Leader Dave Reed said gambling expansion is now permanently on his list of priorities. What exactly does that mean? 

Gambling in PA has experienced several expansions in the past few years, with varying degrees of success. Still, my sense is that Majority Leader Reed and others recognize that offering gambling online is an inevitability, and the logical next step in these technologically advanced times. The longer PA delays its implementation, the thinking seemingly goes, the more potential revenue that is unrealized.

Reports say that the budget standoff has put online gambling back on the table for revenue. How true is this, and how serious is the consideration? 

It is clear that both sides are seriously considering online gambling as a part of any budget agreement. Any lingering concerns are seemingly focused on how big of a revenue-generator online gambling will be, and for how long. Still, its inclusion in the ongoing discussions has been recognized by all parties involved in the negotiations, as well as media outlets throughout the state.

Is the PPA pushing for online poker only? Or is it accepted that the best prospect for PA is to support all online gambling? 

To date, the PPA has focused its efforts on the legalization of online poker alone. However, state legislators have begun to intensify their focus on the possible need for regulation of Daily Fantasy Sports games in the state. While the PPA remains, by definition, an alliance of poker players, the organization is not opposed to regulation of other forms of online gaming. In fact, the same consumer protections that regulation would bring to poker can be achieved through regulation of other forms of online gaming.

What is the PPA doing right now to legalize online gambling for PA players? And what are your plans for the rest of 2015?  

The most obvious thing that the PPA is doing is working to make sure that the voice of the players is heard. This is being accomplished through various social media and telephone-based campaigns aimed at decision-makers and media outlets. Additionally, PPA leadership has taken the fight directly to the state capital with formal testimony and ad hoc lobbying efforts. These efforts will continue and intensify as planning for online poker in PA moves closer toward legalization.

Does the recent acceptance of PokerStars by New Jersey DGE have any impact on PA’s plans? 

Some PA legislators may be looking at New Jersey’s experience with online gambling to help shape their position. While the industry is growing, most industry analysts believe PokerStars will have a measurable impact on the market in New Jersey; having them in the market should, therefore, increase potential tax revenue. Thankfully, there is no discussion to exclude Amaya/PokerStars from the PA market, and  they could be in a strong position to add value for PA players should they become licensed in this state.

How serious is the fear of RAWA and the potential of a moratorium from the perspective of the PPA in PA? And is there fear from the state’s legislators? 

The PPA in PA continues to monitor and counter RAWA-related efforts, refusing to take anything for granted, but the focus in PA has been almost entirely on the appropriateness and feasibility of licensing by the state. For their part, there does not appear to be much concern at this point on the part of PA legislators that their authority will be usurped in this regard.

What can gaming fans in Pennsylvania do to support your efforts? 

Judah: Take advantage of every opportunity to let legislators know that they support the legalization of online gambling; don’t assume that somebody else will do it or that their efforts won’t make a difference. Everybody who cares about the future of the game and/or internet freedom and states’ rights should write, call and seek out their state and federal representatives at public appearances. Also, take the time to comment on media stories about the fight for online gambling. Follow and the PPA on Facebook and Twitter, then take the actions suggested there.

What is your realistic expectation for online poker and gambling in PA?

Because the discussion has greatly intensified over the past year, and has moved from whether we should consider it to how legalization would work and be implemented, I truly believe we will see online poker/gambling within the next year.

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Jennifer Newell

Jennifer has been a freelance writer in the poker industry for a decade. She left a full-time job with the World Poker Tour to tell the stories of poker. She now lives in St. Louis, writes about poker while pursuing other varied interests, and speaks her mind on Twitter… a lot.