WASHINGTON - Gov. Brian Sandoval went to bat Thursday for a federal online poker bill, breaking away from fellow governors ramping up to fight it.
Sandoval split with the National Governors Association, which told congressional leaders the proposed bill would restrict states from pursuing their own forms of legalized gaming, and the revenue gained would help fund schools and social programs.
A draft bill reviewed by the governors was unacceptable, according to Govs. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania and Steve Beshear of Kentucky.
"We oppose the draft Senate legislation in its current form as an unnecessary pre-emption of state authority," said the governors, who head the association's economic development committee.
"We urge you again to involve the states collectively in the development of possible legislation to regulate Internet gaming," they said in a letter sent Thursday to House and Senate leaders including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
But Sandoval, whose state stands to benefit if Internet poker is made legal, said the legislation drafted by Reid and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., was worth a closer look.
"Internet gaming is inevitable," Sandoval wrote in his own letter to Capitol leaders. And while many states have shown they can regulate brick-and-mortar gaming, he said, the Internet "has introduced a borderless element that state regulation alone cannot address."
The Reid-Kyl bill is a "sensible federal approach," he said. "I offer my full support to the efforts by Senators Harry Reid and Jon Kyl to draft a federal bill that strikes a balance between consumer protection and maintaining state authority."
Sandoval, who was a gaming regulator from 1998 to 2001, said he knew what he was talking about.
"As former chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, I have a unique perspective on this matter that my fellow governors do not have," he said.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who has tried to round up GOP support to legalize online poker, said he welcomed the push from Sandoval, a fellow Republican.
"Passing regulated online poker legislation is critical to the state of Nevada, and I will continue working to get legislation passed by the end of the year," Heller said in a statement.
The governors' dueling letters provided a possible preview to what awaits Congress when it returns for a post-election lame-duck session next month. Poker advocates and casino interests are pinning their hopes that Reid can push through significant gaming legislation in the month or so remaining.
At the same time, that effort is being viewed with suspicion or hostility by anti-gaming conservatives, some Indian tribes, state lottery vendors, and some who think it will tilt invariably to casino interests in Reid's home state.
Nevada has put regulations in place and has issued close to a dozen licenses to operators and technology providers, positioning the state and its leading resort industry near the front of the line if Congress passes a Web poker bill. In the meantime, licensees are allowed to offer poker to Nevadans only, but no sites have opened.
The Reid-Kyl bill as drafted would make most forms of gambling illegal on the Internet, reversing a Department of Justice opinion from December that has opened the way for states to consider expanding lotteries online or creating Web poker sites catering to instate players.
While restricting other forms of Web gaming, the legislation would carve out an exception for poker. Advocates contend poker is not really gambling because it involves card skills and it pits players against each other and not a house dealer.
The latest flurry comes after a 73-page draft of the Reid-Kyl bill became public late last week. No legislation has been introduced.
"The bill that has been leaked is just a draft and is a premature version of the online poker legislation," Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said Thursday. "We continue to work with all stakeholders, including states, to address concerns."
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.