Committee can't decide on Internet poker bill

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North Dakota's Senate has been left to decide the fate of an Internet poker licensing bill without guidance from a key committee whose members split on whether to endorse it. One senator called the idea a "tar baby" of potential lawsuits.

The Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocked twice on the legislation Friday before agreeing to forward it to the full Senate, without a recommendation on whether it should be approved or defeated.

The committee's chairman, Sen. Jack Traynor, R-Devils Lake, and Sens. John Syverson, R-Fargo, and Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, supported the measure. Sens. Tom Trenbeath, R-Cavalier, Nick Hacker, R-Grand Forks, and Carolyn Nelson, D-Fargo, opposed it.

The U.S. Justice Department contends Internet gambling is illegal, and sent a warning letter to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem relaying the agency's concerns. Trenbeath said the federal agency's opinion influenced his own decision.

"My only true concern with respect to this is … the tar baby that we might be attaching ourselves to in the threat of a lawsuit by the federal government," Trenbeath said.

Traynor said he was less bothered by the Justice Department's stand. He noted that a federal appeals court decision concluded that the Wire Act, which is a federal anti-gambling law, applied to sports wagering but not to other types of Internet gambling.

"This is persuasive legal authority," said Traynor, who is a lawyer. "I believe it's much more persuasive than a letter from the Justice Department, by someone interpreting the statutes. I would rather have the court interpret the statutes."

To take effect, the legislation also requires an amendment to the North Dakota Constitution. The Senate will consider a separate resolution to put the amendment to a vote in June 2006.

Traynor said that fact made him more comfortable in supporting the Internet poker bill.

"I think it would be judicious for us to let the people decide," Traynor said. "All of the arguments will be out in the open. The people will have an opportunity to evaluate their foundations, and their worth."

The Legislature's committees review proposed bills and make recommendations about whether the full House or Senate should approve or reject them.

Lawmakers often rely on committee advice in deciding how they should vote, and it is unusual for a committee to forward a bill without a recommendation.

Under the legislation, North Dakota's attorney general would be responsible for licensing and regulating Internet poker sites that were based in the state.

The Judiciary Committee did agree on a set of changes to the Internet poker measure, including more specific language on the attorney general's regulatory power. The amendments also require that the state collect at least $1 million in licensing fees before any poker site may operate.

After the full Senate reviews the amendments next week, the Senate Appropriations Committee will look over the bill.

The Appropriations Committee, which helps write North Dakota's two-year budget, has jurisdiction because of the estimated cost of poker industry regulation. The Appropriations Committee will attempt to make its own recommendation on the bill's merits.

Syverson and Triplett said they saw consumer protection benefits in regulating Internet poker. North Dakota would become the first state to license Internet poker sites if the legislation is approved, and if voters approve the constitutional amendment.

"It seems to me that somebody in this country has an obligation to regulate this stuff. And maybe we're not the best people to start it," Triplett said. "But I sure think that somebody needs to be regulating it."

Lobbyists for the Internet poker industry have been pushing the bill, and one Internet gambling executive has described the industry as "crying out" for regulation.

Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, said he was disappointed by the Judiciary Committee's vote. Kasper is the sponsor of both the Internet poker bill and the constitutional amendment, which have both been approved by the House.

"Internet poker is not going away. It's going to grow. The market is worldwide, and North Dakota has an opportunity to benefit from that market," Kasper said.

Former Gov. Arthur Link, a gambling critic who watched the Judiciary Committee's deliberations, said he was optimistic the Senate will defeat the bill.

"I think the attitude of the average member is pretty well crystallizing," Link said. "If I were to judge by the people who speak to me … they're opposed to the passage of this bill."

The bill is HB1509.

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