Five California Tribes Press for Legalized iPoker

Two coalitions of gaming tribes are at loggerheads as to how to proceed to legalize online poker in California. Some despair that they will ever meet in the middle while others have hopes of a compromise. Agua Caliente Chairman Jeff Grubbe (l.) doesn't want a bad bill.

Despite what they describe as “obstructionist” efforts the stop them, five California tribes are doubling down on their efforts to bring a bill to legalize iPoker to a vote in the legislature this year—in fact, this month.

The tribes, San Manuel and Morongo Mission Indians, the Rincon and Pala Luiseño Indians and the United Auburn Indian Community who call themselves “the coalition of the willing” have partnered with Amaya/PokerStars and several card rooms.

They are trying to face down a coalition led by the Pechanga and Agua Caliente bands, a total of nine tribes, who oppose participation by PokerStars as well as by the state’s racetracks.  They hope to force a vote before the August 17 summer recess.

The racetracks and their allies are progressing in pushing for their inclusion, claiming that they have enough political clout to keep a bill from being passed without them having a seat at the table. Robyn Black, a lobbyist for the racetrack industry told Online Poker Report, “This is the biggest coalition yet behind Internet poker. If we get consumer groups you’re going to see the coalition grow. If it isn’t a success in 2015 it will be a force in 2016.”

Besides opposing racetrack participation the Pechanga coalition (“the coalition of the unwilling?”) wants to retain a “bad actor” clause that would prevent the participation by PokerStars, which ran afoul of the U.S. Justice Department several years ago when it allowed American residents to play on its offshore casino websites.

The two groups have apparently concluded that they can’t reach a compromise, so each is going to try to push through its own plan by brute force.

“I don’t think there will be any movement,” Jeff Grubbe, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, told Online Poker Report. “No bill is better than a bad bill. We’re more than happy to not even have Internet gaming. We’re fine with that.”

Some participants in the meetings between the two sides have called them “pointless.” According to lobbyist David Quintana, “Race tracks and PokerStars are insisting they be involved in this. If race tracks agreed to take a revenue share instead of a website license and if PokerStars stepped out of the picture we would have had I-poker six months ago.”

Meanwhile the Pechanga group have aired anti-PokerStars radio and mailer ads, while PokerStars has been touring the state with its “Let California Play,” poker tournaments featuring big names in the world of poker.

The tournament is being sponsored in part by Morongo and San Manuel, who have also launched a website:

Matthew Cullen, chief executive officer of San Manuel Digital, which would most likely run a tribal online casino, commented last week, “We’ve got essentially four weeks for things to happen.”

Bo Mazzetti, chairman of the Rincon band, recently issued a statement that said, in part, “For the first time in nearly seven years there is significant momentum on Internet poker legislation. I am hopeful that as soon as the legislature returns from [its] scheduled recess the full assembly will take up the issue.”

Jake Coin, public affairs director for the San Manuel band, isn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet. He told Online Poker Report, “The tribes on our side of the issue are fairly coordinated in terms of what we hope will be a good, strong run the balance of this session.” He added, “For those people who say, ‘This thing is dead, nothing is going to go anywhere,’ that’s ridiculous.”

The Assembly Government Organization committee will hold hearings on Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer’s AB 167 on August 19, shortly after lawmakers return from their month long recess.

Another bill, AB 431 is a so-called “shell” bill that has little except an intent to legalize iPoker in its details. It has passed the GO committee but is currently inactive. Its sponsor Adam Gray, chairman of the committee, is still pushing on it.

A third bill, the first one filed this year, is sponsored by Assemblyman Mike Gatto. It is also inactive. It would limit licenses to tribes and card rooms.

Pechanga Chairman Mike Macarro, while opposing participation by racetracks, does not oppose paying them some of the money realized. He insists that their participation would violate the constitutional amendment that legalized Indian gaming in 2000.

In a separate but related development, Kentucky-based Churchill Downs Inc. has admitted that it has partnered with two California card rooms to enter the iPoker market should it be legalized. They are Crystal Casino & Hotel in Los Angeles and Ocean’s 11 in San Diego County. The parties have signed a ten-year agreement.