Internet poker supporters attempt to salvage constitutional amendment - Saturday 12th of March 2005

A constitutional amendment to require the Legislature to license Internet poker companies got a lukewarm reception from North Dakota senators, who have already defeated a bill to regulate online card rooms.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which reviewed the amendment Wednesday, forwarded it to the full Senate without making a recommendation on whether it should be approved.

The panel had a similar deadlock on a separate bill to license and tax Internet poker sites, which went on to get a pummeling in the Senate. Only three of the 47 senators voted for it.

Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, who is the amendment's sponsor, said he would give "no wager, no odds" on its Senate prospects.

"I believe the people of North Dakota have the right to vote on this issue," he said at the Judiciary Committee hearing. "The revenue that could come to North Dakota from this is huge."

Former Gov. Arthur Link, a prominent gambling critic who testified against the measure Wednesday, said he was encouraged by the committee's lack of support.

"I don't want North Dakota to become known as the poker capital of the world," he told lawmakers.

Supporters of Kasper's legislation say North Dakota could earn millions in tax revenues with little effort by licensing Internet poker tables and taxing the proceeds, which are now collected by businesses headquartered in other countries.

"Why are we sending this (money) elsewhere? We can't pretend that it's not happening," said Mitch Schock of the Dakota Poker Tour, which organizes poker tournaments for charitable organizations.

North Dakota also could safeguard youngsters by requiring poker sites to exclude players younger than 18, a regulation that isn't guaranteed with overseas operations, Kasper said.

"The phenomenon of poker is here to stay, not only in the United States but around the world," he said. "We have an opportunity to be on the front end of the regulation of the industry on the Internet."

Opponents of the measure referred to the U.S. Justice Department's stand that Internet gambling of any kind is illegal. The government's position has stalled efforts in Nevada and the U.S. Virgin Islands to license Internet casinos.

"We're asking people to vote on something illegal, and if it passes, we're requiring the Legislature to do something illegal," said Warren DeKrey of Bismarck, the chairman of the North Dakota Council on Gambling Problems.

If approved by the Legislature, Kasper's measure would appear on the June 2006 primary ballot. If voters approve it, the amendment would direct the 2007 Legislature to "authorize Internet live poker located in the state and licensed and regulated by the state."

Online poker would then join charitable gambling and the lottery as exceptions to the North Dakota Constitution's ban on state-authorized wagering.

Sen. Tom Trenbeath, R-Cavalier, wondered if the amendment should instead ask North Dakotans to repeal the gambling prohibition. It says: "The legislative assembly shall not authorize any game of chance, lottery, or gift enterprises, under any pretense, for any purpose whatsoever."

"This is like being nibbled to death by a thousand ducks," Trenbeath said. "If the constitution should be amended, shouldn't it be amended to remove the impediment rather than to mandate an action?"

The committee deadlocked several times, tallying 3-3 votes on motions to amend the resolution, and to recommend its approval and defeat. The six committee members eventually voted unanimously to send the bill to the Senate without recommendation.

The amendment, like Kasper's earlier Internet poker bill, already has been approved in the House.

Kasper said he could not predict the Senate's response, but he has said he will not pursue an initiated measure if the Legislature balks at licensing online poker.

"Put it on the ballot and let the people make their decision. That's what I hope the Senate will do," he said.

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