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Kevin Smith

North Dakota Senate Kills Companion Poker Bill

28 March 2005

The movement to license and regulate online poker rooms in North Dakota all but died on Friday when the state's Senate voted 44-3 to kill a bill that would have put the issue before voters via a constitutional amendment.

The vote marked the second time in less than a week that an online poker bill was defeated by the Senate with only three votes in support of the measure. Last Monday, a companion bill that would have created enabling legislation and set up the frame work for gambling regulations and taxes was also defeated by the Senate 44-3, after it narrowly passed the House of Representatives in February.

The main sponsor of the bills, Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, was hopeful the constitutional amendment bill would have garnered more support because some Senators had expressed a desire to let residents in the state decide if North Dakota should license and regulate online poker rooms.

The amendment, had it been approved, would have been placed on the June 2006 ballot, and would not have taken effect unless voters endorsed it.

The idea's critics, however, said if the Legislature put the proposal to a vote, North Dakotans might interpret the move as an effort by state lawmakers to endorse Internet poker regulation.

"I don't want this resolution to pass, because I don't want anyone to think that this Legislature is giving any kind of a pre-approval, or anything else, to the subject matter," said Sen. David Nething, R-Jamestown.

Sen. John Syverson, R-Fargo, said it was preferable for North Dakota to regulate Internet poker, and provide some safeguards for players, than to allow youngsters or people deep in debt to continue playing.

"We can deny that (Internet poker) is among us, or we can control it, for we will never be able to totally eliminate it, as much as that may be desired by some," Syverson said. "We need to prevent kids, and those that cannot or should not be participating in this endeavor ... from doing so."

Syverson and Sens. Jack Traynor, R-Devils Lake, and Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, voted in favor of the measure. All three are members of the Senate's Judiciary Committee, which held hearings on both Internet poker measures. Traynor is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"I think we want to engage the people of North Dakota in a debate as to whether they want online or Internet poker," Traynor said. "Let the debate begin. Let the people speak."

The three Senators were the same ones that voted in support of the enabling legislation.

Despite a lobbying effort from legal experts and others representing the online gambling industry in Bismarck earlier in March, opponents of the bill were persuaded by a letter sent by the U.S. Department of Justice to the state's Attorney General, implying that the proposed state bill would be in violation of the Federal Wire Act.

The proponents from the industry argued that the Wire Act only applied to sports betting and online poker would be exempt from the bill. Insiders for the industry and operators also indicated that they would be willing to support a legal challenge against the Department of Justice. Those arguments didn't persuade enough Senators to support the bill though.

Sen. Tom Trenbeath, R-Cavalier, said he opposed the amendment because it spells out that the Legislature "shall authorize" North Dakota-based Internet poker sites.

The amendment does not give the Legislature any discretion about what to do, and the U.S. Justice Department believes all Internet gambling is illegal, Trenbeath said.

"If the ballot measure is passed, and we are forced to put into effect a piece of legislation that the Department of Justice says is unlawful under federal law," Trenbeath said. "Which master do we serve at that point?

"I'm not tempted to tell Uncle Sam he's wrong," Trenbeath said, "and to spend the money to attempt to prove it."

Kasper said he isn't giving up on the idea of North Dakota being the first U.S. state to license and regulate online poker sites. He indicated that if enough signatures can be gathered (30,000) residents can enact legislation by putting an act on the ballot. Kasper said he would be supportive of a plan but said such an effort would have to include industry supporters and a massive "grass roots" campaign.

If enough signatures are gathered the issue could be placed before the voters as part of the June 2006 general election. Kasper said he is talking to industry representatives and operators to gauge their level of interest for a statewide initiative.

North Dakota Senate Kills Companion Poker Bill is republished from
Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith