California Online Poker Bill AB 431 Passes from Committee in Historic Vote

Today’s California State Assembly hearing to consider the formal regulation of online poker in the most populous of the 50 United States offered few fireworks but concluded with an affirmative surprise — a unanimous vote to move the bill, AB 431, out of committee and onto the floor of the full Assembly for further debate.

CaliforniaThe bill debated and voted on today before the state assembly’s “GO” (Governmental Organization) committee was sponsored by committee chairman Isadore Hall III, and faced a May 1st deadline to advance from the GO Committee.  Though the bill remains officially an empty shell, word emerged as the hearing began that informal agreement among various entities backing different California online poker bills had been reached, at least to the point of allowing the bill to move forward for further state-level discussion.

AB 431 passed on a 20-0 vote, with no abstentions, even though no specifics of the bill have yet been declared.  At least two amendments are rumored to be part of the language of the bill from earlier, informal draft versions, though those amendments have yet to be filed.

Two of the major issues blocking various bills’ advancement in recent years are the possible inclusion of the state’s pari-mutuel racetracks in the state’s future online-poker industry, along with so-called “bad actor” inclusions inserted into other bills (but not Hall’s, according to various reports) that sought to target the former US-facing site PokerStars and block it, perhaps unconstitutionally, from the California market.

PokerStars and its new owner, Canada’s Amaya Gaming, have already partnered with at least five different state-licensed poke rooms and tribal casinos in the hopes that regulation is passed that will not contain such bad-actor language.

The Amaya-centric coalition, including the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, California’s three largest card clubs –Commerce Casino, Hawaiian Gardens Casino and Bicycle Casino, was one of at least three entities that issued a statement congratulating the GO Committee for moving the bill.  According to a press statement issued from the coalition to FlushDraw:

“Today’s passage of AB 431 (Gray) out of the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee represents a milestone for authorizing online poker in California. While this is just the first step in what will be a long process, it’s still important. Never before has an online poker bill had anything more than an informational hearing, much less been voted upon and passed out of committee.

“Finalizing the details of the legislation that will regulate California’s online poker marketplace still need to be worked out. But so far, 2015 is different. Hard lines and tough talk have morphed into open minds and dialogue. The vote today underscores the momentum building to help ensure that California finally passes iPoker legislation.

“Authorizing online poker will be good for millions of consumers and poker players who will benefit from a safe, regulated environment where they are protected. Every year that California fails to act not only puts consumers at risk while playing online games from offshore localities that provide few protections and regulations, but our state also loses out on collecting hundreds of millions of dollars that can be used for essential programs like public schools, public safety, healthcare and social services.

“Our coalition is committed to putting in the time necessary to establish a vibrant, competitive marketplace, one that provides superior consumer protections, requires strict oversight and regulation of operators and licensees, and ensures that the state receives a reasonable return.”

Also sending a press statement to FlushDraw were the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians.  The Rincon nation has partnered with Caesars Entertainment in the event that online-poker is regulated in California.  According to Rincon chairman Bo Mazzetti:

“Today is a historic day as a California legislative committee approves a bill that will lead to legalizing Internet poker in California. Without the leadership of Assemblyman Adam Gray, this would not be possible.

“There’s still plenty of work to be done and issues to be resolved. However, the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians is optimistic that this is the year for Internet poker in California. After five years of debates, some of the heavy lifting of crafting legislation has been done. Now, it is time for the stakeholders to come together, end the politics and solve the final issues.

“We look forward to the informational hearings and discussing the issues in greater detail. More importantly, we look forward to finding solutions to the sticking points and common ground through compromise.”

A third and more brief statement was issued to OPR by Pechanga tribal chairman Mark Macarro.  The Pechangas and Macarro are foremost among the “Cali 7” group of hardline tribal nations who have insisted that neither pari-mutuel interests nor the Amaya-owned PokerStars can be allowed to participate in the future California online poker offerings.  Said Macarro:

“We look forward to a meaningful process and arriving at comprehensive legislation that respects California’s longstanding public policy of limited gaming, protects children and the vulnerable, creates jobs, provides additional revenues for the State, and protects consumers and the integrity of the gaming industry from organizations that do not and have not respected U.S. law.”

It’s interesting to note, within the statements, that the bad-actor dispute has apparently not reached final compromise.  The Amaya coalition statement includes the references to “a vibrant, competitive marketplace” and “strict oversight and regulation of operators and licensees.”  The Pechanga statement from Macarro continues the tribe’s hardline stance of “limited gaming” and the implied assertion that the pre-Amaya PokerStars “[has] not respected U.S. law.”

Though AB 431 has moved forward, it is clear from the various statements that much work remains to be done.


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