Moving forward on Internet poker

A coalition funded by major casino corporations to lobby for legal and regulated Internet poker rolled out some big guns last week to champion the cause.

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh has joined former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on the board of FairPlayUSA, an effort launched this summer with startup funding from Caesars Entertainment Inc. and MGM Resorts International to build support for legalized online poker.

Despite federal indictments this spring targeting three of the largest online poker companies, the former federal law enforcers said current law on Internet gaming has been ineffective, that legalization combined with federal regulation of online poker would protect consumers while better allowing authorities to police sites that sponsor the games.

“The fact is there are millions and millions of people playing the game today,” Mr. Ridge said at a media event in the U.S. Capitol. “Congress in 2006 decided to prohibit all Internet gambling. Was it well-intentioned? Yes. Has it been effective? … The answer is unequivocally no.

“Prohibition hasn’t worked, criminalization doesn’t make a lot of sense,” added the former Pennsylvania governor. “The alternative is to encourage Congress, with the right input from the law enforcement community, consumer protection advocates, child safety advocates, professional players, to develop a regulatory scheme to enable law enforcement to oversee lawful Internet poker.”

The statement resounds with such common sense that it’s tempting to wonder why it doesn’t apply to a number of other industries that could be generating tax revenues instead of creating careers for bagmen and undercover cops. But let’s deal with one counterproductive law at a time:

Nevadans have a particular interest in this debate. The fact that Nevada and Las Vegas are so well-known as the hosts for live poker tournaments, most notably the annual World Series of Poker, had attracted many of those well-heeled players to establish residency here. Following this year’s April 15 “Black Friday” federal crackdown on the offshore websites, however, many of those players started talking about moving offshore themselves.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Nevadans’ decades of experience in gaming regulation make the Silver State the leading candidate to be awarded the federal regulatory “franchise” over this popular entertainment, a taxable enterprise that industry insiders estimate could generate revenues for the state in the range of $3 billion per year.

Officials with FairPlayUSA advocate a federal law to define Internet gambling and provide umbrella protections they say will not be possible if states were “allowed” to enact individual poker laws.

We’re all for states’ rights. But a single set of rules would certainly be clearer and easier, especially if that avoids conflicts between state and federal jurisdictions that could trap players in legal limbo.

The state’s congressional delegation appears to be on board. Becoming the capital of legal online poker may or may not solve all Nevada’s current economic problems, but it certainly would strengthen the brand, making it a big step in the right direction.

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