Full deck of visitors to lobby for poker

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A legislator's push to legalize Internet poker sites is drawing major attention from the offshore Internet poker industry, prompting industry leaders to plan visits to the state.

Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, is trying to line up Mike Sexton, host of the World Poker Tour, former winners of the tour and CEOs of the some of the world's largest Internet poker sites.

Kevin Smith, a researcher for a company that promotes the Internet poker industry, said the industry is watching closely what is happening in North Dakota.

"There's an enormous amount of interest that has been generated in all of this and it has all been positive," Smith said. "The buzz is only going to get louder."

Smith is a researcher for St. Charles., Mo.-based River City Group, which organizes trade shows and conferences for Internet poker companies.

Kasper is planning a three-day schedule beginning March 13 in which industry officials and others will meet legislators, testify in committee and hold a reception that will include games of Texas Hold 'em.

Kasper has introduced two pieces of legislation that would allow companies to set up Internet poker sites in North Dakota. The companies would be regulated and taxed by the state.

House Bill 1509, which passed the House last week by a vote of 49-43, sets up the guidelines for the sites. That bill will have to be voted on in the Senate before it can be signed into law.

House Concurrent Resolution 3035, which was heard in committee Wednesday, allows people to vote to change the State Constitution to allow Internet poker sites.

Even if both pieces of legislation pass, some wonder if the federal government would strike down the law.

Internet poker companies currently locate in other countries because they fear a 1960s federal law that prohibits gambling over the wire.

Keith Lauer, director of the gaming division of the attorney general's office, said there are so many unanswered questions surrounding the legislation.

"Who knows what the potential is," Lauer said. "You never know what a district judge might do."

Patrick O'Brien, an attorney who represents clients in the Internet poker industry, including some offshore countries, said he doubts the federal government could stop North Dakota from allowing the sites.

"Gambling has always been a states' rights issue," O'Brien said. "If North Dakota legalizes it, then it's legal."

O'Brien is planning to visit North Dakota in March, when there will be another hearing on the legislation.

O'Brien said Nevada legalized Internet gambling a few years ago, but did not go ahead with it because that legislation required approval from the Justice Department first, which was approval Nevada didn't receive.

Some opponents of the legislation simply don't want the state involved in gambling.

Rep. Kari Conrad, D-Minot, said by regulating the industry the state would be encouraging the expansion of gambling.

"North Dakota will become a virtual Las Vegas," Conrad said. "People will come here to do their gambling, they don't have to fly, they don't have to drive, but they will come here to do their gaming," Conrad said.

Kasper said his bills don't expand gambling because it is something people all over the world are playing now.

"Whether we do this or not, the Internet is here to stay and the Internet poker sites are here to stay and they are growing by 10 percent a month," Kasper said.

Kasper said his legislation could bring hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue annually to the state because the profits would be taxed and each player would pay a $10 annual registration fee.

Smith said North Dakota could be in a good position to be the first to allow Internet poker sites because it has the only state-owned bank in the nation.

Smith said people could get credit cards through the Bank of North Dakota, which would ensure the legitimacy of the transactions.

"It could potentially be the only jurisdiction in the world with the leverage of a legitimate bank," Smith said.

(Reach reporter Tom Rafferty at 223-8482 or tom.rafferty@bismarcktribune.com.)

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