Regulated online poker in the United States has been a long slog thus far. Only three states have chosen to legalize online poker in several years; Nevada chose online poker, and New Jersey and Delaware merged online casino games with poker.
The fight has been painful for poker fans, as they watch legislators introduce bills that simply die months later. Hopes have been raised and let down many times over.
California is one of the states that has teased poker players with the possibility of legislation year after year. The initial problem with passage of a bill was the varying opinions of tribes and the potential impact on their casinos, as well as the contentious issue of bad actors, i.e. PokerStars. Last year, the biggest stumbling block to bill passage was the demand from race track owners that they be allowed to participate in online poker offerings alongside tribes.
As 2015 came to a close, the Poker Players Alliance’s Rich Muny stated that California is the “next best bet” after Pennsylvania, which has been close to the passage of bill for several months. And only days into 2016, the California legislature announced a joint committee hearing for online poker and daily fantasy sports (DFS) for January 6.
It seemed almost too good to be true. And it was. At the last moment, online poker bill AB 167 was pulled from the hearing’s agenda in order to focus completely on DFS.
Many in the poker community had become accustomed to the California online poker disappointment, but an unexpected ally stepped in. That day, the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA) issued a press release urging the Assembly GO Committee to schedule an online poker hearing.
The press release did not mince words.
“The regulation of fantasy sports is well intended,” said CNIGA Chairman Steve Stallings. “However, the state needs to prove it can deal with one online game – I-Poker – before it takes on others.”
He went on to note that AB 167, previously introduced to the House by Rep. Reginald Jones-Sawyer, “opens the door to compromises that can finally bring the majority together.” He then added something that many in poker did not know: “We were excruciatingly close last year, and I would like to see CNIGA play a major role in helping to unify the Indian tribes on the key issues that previously divided us and take the lead in supporting a partner bill in the state Senate.”
He called on the California Assembly Governmental Organization (GO) Committee chairman, Rep. Adam Gray, to schedule a new hearing to specifically address online poker legislation.
What is CNIGA?
The non-profit organization is a group of federally recognized tribal governments dedicated to the protection of tribal sovereignty, specifically pertaining to the right to conduct gaming on Indian lands. CNIGA tracks and reviews legal, legislative, and policy issues and actions that may affect California tribes’ regulated gaming.
There are currently 32 tribes listed as members, among them some prominent tribes in the online poker fight, i.e. Morongo Band of Mission Indians, Rincon Band of Luiseno Indians, and San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. Those three have been so supportive of online poker that they partnered with Amaya/PokerStars to push it forward.
The association long followed the progress of online poker talks in California, but not until now had it made such a strong proclamation on behalf of its members.
Stallings told us that CNIGA representatives met with Rep. Gray of the GO Committee, and the latter asserted that online poker will be heard via a new hearing in the month of January.
Since the issue has been such an important one to CNIGA’s members for many years, the organization has worked to unify the tribes. “Our membership has diverse positions,” said Stallings, “however, the membership has adopted a set of principles for Internet gaming that must be met to ensure our common interests. These tests are used to guide our positions on i-Poker. The issues have included no expansion of gaming, protecting sovereignty and exclusivity, and consumer protections.”
At the forefront of CNIGA’s concerns is one common goal: Tribal unity. The above-mentioned principles meet the concerns of members who are key players in the tribal groups.
The major stumbling block to online poker remains race tracks. But the tribes are coalescing with a proposal.
Stallings told us, “The remaining tribal opposition is over the eligibility of tracks for a license, but our tribes are now all of one position. The tracks are not currently operating poker, and alternatives will be developed to assist the tracks financially.”
In addition, Stallings contends that Assemblymen Gray and Sawyer-Jones “appear near a joint compromise on bill language.” Stallings is also “confident” that legislative leaders are committed to ensuring tribal sovereignty.
CNIGA has been busy on this issue, and Stallings is positive. “We are encouraged by the progress,” he said, “but we are prepared to fight hard to make this happen.”
In conjunction with the PPA, law enforcement groups, industry operators, and public officials, CNIGA is taking center stage in 2016 to legalize online poker.
CNIGA may be the unifying force that California online poker has needed for several years.