DES MOINES — The odds of state lawmakers legalizing online poker remain long, but backers say they have not lost hope of dealing a winning hand yet this session.
Supporters got good news Tuesday with assurances that Senate File 458 is “funnel-proof” under Senate procedural rules. That means it will not be subject to the Legislature’s self-imposed Friday deadline for policy bills to be approved by either the House or Senate and a committee of the other chamber to remain eligible for consideration this year. The measure is awaiting action by the Senate Ways and Means Committee due to a fee provision, which qualifies it for the exemption given to budget and taxation measures.
However, the measure still faces unanswered questions, opposition and uncertainty as senators explore the possibility of becoming the first state to venture into an Internet gaming area that industry officials say already is enticing an estimated 150,000 Iowa players via illegal offshore operations.
“My understanding is that it’s real close but that there aren’t enough votes at this time until certain things get addressed,” said Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, who is managing the measure in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “People’s concerns are legitimate and we need time to address them. Right now I would say the odds are probably not for this year.”
Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, said it’s too early to say the bill can’t muster the 26 Senate votes needed to move it to the House, because he believes there are senators who remain open to the legislation. At the same time, he said the seriousness of the social and economic policies at play are such that the bill can’t be rushed, and any perceived loopholes will have to be addressed if the measure is to garner support.
Key features of the bill would authorize the creation of an intrastate online poker network and provide a regulatory structure for its implementation, operation and taxation. SF 458 envisions an authorized online poker hub operator under the control of the state Racing and Gaming Commission that would contract with state-licensed casinos to operate affiliated online sites within a “closed loop” in Iowa for registered players ages 21 and older.
The proposed legislation also would end the requirement that existing state-licensed casinos periodically conduct countywide referendum votes.
Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, a Ways and Means Committee member, said he believes the referendum provision has merit if an option is included for residents to mount a reverse referendum to deal with “bad actors” that they wish to remove. However, he said he would oppose Internet poker.
“I’m adamantly opposed to Internet gambling and I really don’t want any part of that. If any part of Internet gambling is in the bill, I will not be voting to move it out of committee,” Feenstra said. “I’ve done the research on Internet gambling and it’s not pretty. There’s a reason why no state in the nation has taken it upon themselves to do this. It’s got the highest addiction rate of anything.”
Democratic Sens. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids and Swati Dandekar of Marion said they won’t vote for the gambling measure, and Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, Ways and Means Committee chairman, said he won’t schedule committee consideration unless backers have the votes to pass it.
Danielson said the proposal provides consumer protection and regulatory structure that are now lacking, but Sen. Merlin Bartz, R-Grafton, said the measure also contains some vexing loopholes and is built on assumptions that it will generate $30 million in new revenue to the state and clean up online operations.
“I have some real reservations about an expansion of gaming in the state based upon premises that we can’t substantiate,” he said.