By Jim O’Sullivan
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 26, 2008…. While his casino bill’s overall prospects remain far from clear, Gov. Deval Patrick’s bid to criminalize online betting appears especially imperiled, with the administration treating that provision as incidental.
Close observers of the upcoming gambling debate say the move to outlaw Internet gambling, with prison sentences of up to two years, could be a casualty. Administration officials concede that the ban is not central to the three-casino plan, which Patrick estimates could generate up to $450 million in annual state tax revenues.
Senate President Pro Tempore Stanley Rosenberg, designated by Senate President Therese Murray as her top adviser on gambling, called the ban “very, very difficult” to enforce. …
With considerable opposition in the House from Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, the bill’s path to passage is challenging. The state Republican Party said Tuesday it had not received a response to Monday’s letter requesting the State Ethics Commission investigate DiMasi’s golfing trips with potential casino developers.
Current federal law prohibits online gambling, but targets the institutions that handle the money and not the bettors themselves. Patrick’s bill does not explicitly provide for enforcement mechanisms.
A Harvard Law School professor who studies Internet gambling said that, in talks with administration and industry officials, he’s been unable to determine how the clause found its way into the bill.
“I’ve been talking to just about everybody I can talk to, and it is really interesting to get to the bottom of how this provision actually got into the bill,” said Charles Nesson, William Weld professor of law at Harvard Law. “You start out thinking that it’s the casino interests, because they’re really the guys that wrote the bill, and then it turns out that the principal guys that were at the hearing didn’t even know it was there.”
Patrick’s press secretary, Kyle Sullivan, called Nesson’s charge that lobbyists wrote the bill “outrageous and ill-informed.”
The criminalization effort also directly contradicts US Rep. Barney Frank’s effort to sanction online gambling. Frank, a Patrick political ally, has criticized the clause.
Industry experts say the Internet ban would sweeten the market for casino operators by eliminating one of the in-state gambling options that could drain the customer base of its potential. It was unclear how the provision’s removal would affect the proposal’s capability to bring revenue to state coffers.
Patrick’s chief of staff, Doug Rubin, said, “It’s something that we thought was useful, but we’re willing to talk about all that stuff.”
The administration last week hired a New Jersey gambling industry consulting firm to inspect the bill’s estimates. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce has a separate study due within weeks.
Patrick’s point man on gambling, assistant secretary for policy and planning, is on unpaid leave, after being arrested for sexual battery in Florida.
Patrick’s legislation, which lawmakers expect to come up before the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies next month, creates an authority to regulate the gambling industry. But the bill holds no specific language for how to enforce the online wagering ban.
Rosenberg said, “That’s a very difficult provision to implement, because how do you control Internet services that can come from anywhere in the world?” …
Legislative officials said concern over the online betting measure was premature until after the House-controlled committee began the formal deliberative process by holding a hearing. A DiMasi spokesman said Friday that the committee was working to set a date and that the speaker remained “skeptical.”
The state’s current, legalized system of gambling does not permit Internet transactions. Lottery spokesman Dan Rosenfeld said Lottery officials’ analysis found that current law would allow for online wagering if the agency could ensure that all players were in Massachusetts. The Lottery Commission has no plans to establish an Internet betting system, he said, adding, “We’re keeping our options open.”
But online poker advocates, including Nesson and the Poker Players Alliance, are actively resisting the effort to criminalize what they say is a pastime and personal freedom that should be preserved.
“Right now because nobody wants to take credit for putting it in, there doesn’t seem to be anyone who would be significantly opposed to taking it out,” said Vin Narayanan, managing editor of Casino City, the industry publication.
After talking with casino developers Sheldon Adelson and Gary Loveman, Narayanan said, he’d concluded the provision’s origin was “a mystery to everyone.”
He said, “The thing is, it’s harder to undo things than to do things. Because it’s harder to undo things, it’s a fifty-fifty proposition. If this had been pre-mark-up, and word had gotten out that it had been in the bill, it would’ve been really easy to take it out.”
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