Internet gambling still a long shot in Texas [Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas]
(Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TX) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 26--Someday soon, gamblers may no longer have to travel to a casino to ante up.
Legalized gambling may become as easy as logging on to the nearest computer.
Several states are now exploring their options on the heels of a federal ruling that experts believe has opened the door to legalized online gambling, potentially revamping the entire casino and gambling industry.
Opening up lottery sales via the Internet is also a possibility under the recent Justice Department ruling.
"Gambling is going to undergo a fundamental change as large as when it moved from alleys, backrooms and secret underground locations to legal storefront casinos," said Ken Adams, a consultant with Las Vegas-based CDC Consulting. "Gambling has moved out of the shadows and into the bright lights.
"Now it is poised to migrate once again, this time from the multimillion- and sometimes billion-dollar casinos ... to the apartments, offices and single-family houses of the nation."
But Texas, where opposition to any expansion of gambling remains strong, is unlikely to be at the leading edge of the action.
Critics say that even though it could mean additional revenue to balance the budget, expanding gambling in Texas, especially allowing it into people's homes, could financially devastate those who can least afford it.
Even some supporters of building traditional Las Vegas-style casinos in Texas say online gambling may not be the way to go. They argue that allowing casinos to open in the state would give a far bigger boost to jobs and the economy.
"The bottom line is -- however the Justice Department treats online gambling -- Texans are already voting with their feet and wallets," said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.
"Texans spend billions of dollars every year ... driving to Oklahoma, Louisiana or Las Vegas. They spend money at Native American casinos here in Texas and spend millions on state-sanctioned lottery tickets.
"I do not think the right approach for Texas from a revenue-generating standpoint is to have these small, piecemeal changes."
The Wire Act
Texas lawmakers have long debated whether to allow gambling and potentially pump new revenue into the budget or to continue watching Texans travel out of state and spend their money at nearby casinos.
"The way for Texas to actually spur economic development and generate billions in revenue is to allow for a limited number of destination casinos," Ellis said.
Last year, the argument arose in the Legislature again. Proposals ranged from allowing destination casinos in Texas to adding video terminals at horse tracks. None of the measures passed.
Now, some observers say, the opportunity to allow online gambling in every state is there for the taking because of a Justice Department ruling issued late last year.
The ruling addressed the Wire Act of 1961, which restricts betting over telecommunications systems that cross state or national borders. In a departure from previous rulings, the department said the act applies only to sports betting.
The answer was prompted by officials in Illinois and New York who wanted to know whether the Wire Act prevented their states from selling lottery tickets online.
Other than sports betting, the ruling "theoretically [creates] a legal path for all other forms of wagering on the Internet," Adams said.
U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, said he hopes the ruling means that his proposal to legalize Internet poker may find more success.
"My bill, HR2366, is needed now more than ever," he said.
"It creates one federal standard that protects the integrity of the game and the financial interests of players while protecting American consumers from nefarious and predatory overseas gambling operations. If Congress doesn't act soon, we could end up with fractured rules and regulations that vary state to state, leaving more opportunity for fraud and fewer safeguards for players."
Several states have started developing legislation to let their residents gamble online legally.
"Seven or eight years from now, I think that just about every state in the country will have online lottery sales and at least half of them will have online poker," gambling expert I. Nelson Rose said in a recent online seminar.
"It took 45 years for state lotteries to get to where they are now. But as we all know, the Internet speeds things up into dog years."
Opponents say they hope that doesn't happen in Texas.
"The state shouldn't be in the business of raising funds on basically a shell game," said Rob Kohler, a consultant with the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, which opposes expanding gambling.
"Traditionally, this argument has come in the form of whether they can raise funds by having casinos throughout the state. You put that activity in big urban areas, you are going to enable a lot of folks who can't afford it.
"Doing it on the Internet, that's the argument on steroids. Is this what we need to be encouraging folks to do? Bring that into their bedroom or living room?"
State law "still prohibits online wagering," according to an update by the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, which noted that the number of online casinos has been reduced by the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.
The Texas attorney general's office confirmed that it has reviewed the Justice Department ruling and that online gambling remains illegal in the state.
Officials have said it would take legislation through the Legislature or Congress -- and possibly a constitutional amendment as well -- to change that. A 1995 attorney general's opinion also confirmed that online gambling is illegal in Texas.
Concerns have been raised recently that the Texas Lottery Commission may have crossed the line and strayed into a variation of online gaming.
The issue is Luck Zone, a scratch-off ticket that offers a second chance for people to win a prize through a promotional drawing.
It's similar to previous second-chance games that let people with a losing ticket mail it in for another chance at winning. But players submit their Luck Zone tickets online through the commission's website.
"The Texas lottery introduced this very quietly ... offering public participation into lottery games over the Internet," Kohler said.
"Whether by design or coincidence, it sure landed [the commission] in some very, very questionable activity."
State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to weigh in on the issue, questioning whether the Lottery Commission has the ability to hold these second-chance drawings on the Internet and whether the commission has the "authority to conduct any game of chance via the Internet."
No ruling has been made.
Commission officials have said it was a logistical change made by staff that didn't require commission approval.
They have said that the actual drawing isn't occurring over the Internet and that they are just receiving the entries online. Those entries are transferred to another computer that conducts the drawing.
Bally Technologies recently acquired an Internet gambling platform that the company can use to help casino companies launch programs online, a move that at least a half-dozen states are considering.
Lottery officials in Illinois plan to soon start selling tickets online, even as the Legislature there considers a measure to legalize online poker.
A group of state senators in Iowa has approved a bill to legalize Internet poker.
New York's lottery is gearing up to likely start selling tickets online.
And Mississippi lawmakers are considering a Lawful Internet Gaming Act of 2012 to legalize online gambling and online poker in the state.
Some states aren't making as much headway.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie recently vetoed a bill that would have let Atlantic City casinos run gambling websites. Christie has said he had "significant concerns" about the measure.
In Pennsylvania, lottery officials want to hold back and see how other states conducting online sales fare.
And Washington, D.C., which had seemed poised to move forward with an iGaming program, suffered a setback this month when community leaders repealed the program after complaints arose that it didn't have enough time for public comment.
In a report to lawmakers Dec. 15, the State Lottery Agency concluded that "it is time to take the necessary steps to offer its products on the Internet to remain competitive and accomplish our core mission."
Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610
(c)2012 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Visit the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at www.star-telegram.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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