Rubio wants online gaming ban but is fine with just poker

Florida Senator and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio is co-sponsor of a Senate bill that would ban legalized online gambling.

But his position may not be absolute.

During a visit with the Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial board this month, Rubio hinted he could support language that would allow for Internet poker.

“On the issue of Internet poker, the only difference between the poker games and the others is that it involves an element of skill associated with and compared with just a slot machine online,” Rubio said in response to a question from Review-Journal Senior Editorial Writer Glenn Cook. “So that’s the one area that distinguishes it a little bit.”

Alex Conant, communications director for Rubio’s presidential campaign, confirmed via email the senator’s stance on Internet poker.

However, Rubio’s opinion might not match that of the bill’s primary backers, including fellow GOP presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

“There is no carve-out from the bill’s sponsors,” said Las Vegas Sands Senior Vice President of Government Relations Andy Abboud. “There may be some varying opinions from the co-sponsors, but there really isn’t any push for it.”

Abboud would know. His boss, Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson has put big money behind a campaign against online gambling. Adelson has argued that making wagers over the Internet is corrosive to society and bad business for the casino industry.

The Graham bill, which Adelson is backing, would restore an interpretation of the Federal Wire Act, the law that prohibited Internet gaming until a 2011 opinion by the Department of Justice allowed states to explore making poker and casino-style games legal online.

A similar bill was introduced in the House in February and sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. The bill has already been the subject a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing.

Both pieces of legislation would carry out the goals of Adelson, which is to wipe Internet gaming from the landscape.

Nevada has legalized online poker while Delaware and New Jersey have legalized other games, including slots and blackjack. The bills do not contain a grandfather clause that would allow those states to continue legally offering Internet gaming.

In June, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, introduced an Internet poker legalization bill, as he has done in each of the past five congressional sessions. In an interview at the World Series of Poker, Barton said poker should be legal online, but he doesn’t expect to find much backing for the measure.

Rubio, who is one of six co-sponsors of the Senate bill — all are Republicans except for California Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein — told the Review-Journal he doesn’t support the current Internet gaming law “as defined” by the Justice Department.

“I’m concerned about particularly (Internet gaming’s) rapid expansion in an unregulated way,” Rubio said.

The candidate also discussed daily fantasy sports, calling the activity “a new issue that we will have to grapple with and learn more about.”

Rubio said he could see an argument being made that there is a skill element involved. However, like poker, “you are still dealt a hand in terms of how players perform or injuries or things that are unanticipated.”

Rubio, 44, is clearly of the online generation.

“These are going to be ongoing issues in the 21st century,” Rubio said. “The Internet and connectivity have created both new opportunities and new challenges.”

Gaming is becoming one of those issues. The American Gaming Association is reminding the 2016 candidates of that through its Gaming Votes grass-roots initiative, which touts the industry as an economic engine in many local communities.

Rubio’s whirlwind visit to Las Vegas included a meeting with Adelson. The endorsement of the 82-year-old billionaire megadonor is one of the hotly sought-after nods by GOP candidates. In 2012, Adelson gave $100 million to Republican candidates and causes. Politico suggested that Adelson had “warmed up” to Rubio during the meeting.

Abboud said Adelson is “not planning any endorsement at this time.” He talked with Rubio and “he’s still talking with everyone.”

Rubio’s home state is hot-button gaming topic.

Several gaming companies, including Las Vegas Sands and Malaysia-based Genting Berhad, have backed unsuccessful casino expansion efforts in the Florida Legislature. The anti-gaming Disney Corp. and the Seminole Indian Tribe, which operates eight casinos in the state, have fought back the measures.

Meanwhile, the Seminoles are negotiating a new gaming compact with the governor covering the tribe’s casino operations, including the Hard Rock properties in Tampa and near Hollywood.

Rubio, according to Conant, is opposed to expanding gambling in Florida.

— Howard Stutz’s Inside Gaming column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. Find on Twitter: @howardstutz

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