Pechanga Not Budging On Track Issue In California Online Poker

Macarro: California Online Poker Should Be Operated By “Indian Tribes And Card Clubs – Period”

California online poker panel at GiGse
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A coalition of seven politically influential American Indian tribes working on internet poker legislation in California will not cede its opposition to bill language that would extend website licenses to the racing industry.

“The only entities that can play poker in California are Indian tribes and card clubs, period,” Chairman Mark Macarro of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians told attendees of a GiGse 2015 panel Tuesday in San Francisco.

“You go beyond that and that is expanding gaming in California,” said Macarro, unofficial spokesman for a coalition of seven tribes who oppose licensing the racing industry, claiming it would violate public policy for limited gambling in the state.

Some members of the coalition also fear licensing tracks could threaten the constitutional guarantee tribes have to operate casino-style gambling, which in many cases funds their governments.

“The future of our people, the future of our tribes, depend on that policy, that law,” Macarro said.

Current outlook for an online poker bill

The hard line taken by seven of about a dozen tribes actively working the online poker issue doesn’t bode well for the likelihood an online poker bill will make it out of the California legislature in 2015.

George Forman, attorney for the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, partners with the San Manuel Band of Indians, three Los Angeles area card rooms and Amaya/ PokerStars, said tribes might need the racing industry’s political clout to pass legislation requiring 2/3rds vote of the state Senate and Assembly.

He also said the Pechanga coalition desire for strict “bad actor” and “tainted assets” provisions could lead to disunity among stakeholders and failure on Capitol Hill.

“If legislation has to include suicidal poison pills and arbitrary and likely unconstitutional approaches on suitability,” Forman said, there would “probably not” be a bill “in 2015, and maybe never.”

Macarro, Forman and others held out hope enough tribes could unite on language to get legislative support.

“If we can come to agreement on not licensing horse tracks in California, than we can come to agreement” on an online poker bill, Macarro said.

“Legislators will have to decide whether the objections of one, two or three tribes outweigh the interests of the other stakeholders,” Forman said.

But without agreement on crucial issues it appears the politically powerful tribes, card rooms and racing industry remain at loggerheads, offering up the likelihood online poker in California for the eighth year will remain an empty promise.

Tracks won’t accept revenue share

A lobbyist for the racing industry told GiGse attendees the horse tracks will pursue efforts to participate in online poker in California, potentially the most lucrative Internet market in the country with 38 million citizens.

“What we do want is an equal opportunity going forward,” said Robyn Black of Eclipse Government Affairs, lobbyist for a diversified industry that includes track owners and operators, breeders, agricultural interests and employee unions.

The racing industry, she said, will not settle for a share of Internet revenues in lieu of website licenses

“Racing is very united,” Black said. “We may fight over other issues in the world of racing, but when hen it comes to Internet poker our unions, our tracks, our trainers, our jockeys, our pari-mutuel folks … are all united.”

Two tribal sources with the Pechanga coalition said the group can reach accord with stakeholders on “bad actor” suitability provisions, but is standing firm on not licensing tracks.

The sources, who requested anonymity, said the combined political clout of tribes and PokerStars could overcome opposition from the tracks.

“Bad actor” issue remains in air

“Are all tribes going to agree on this issue? I think that’s really going to be a challenge,” Tuari Bigknife, attorney general for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, said of tribal efforts to reach consensus on “bad actor” and “tainted assets” provisions of a poker bill.

“It’s a tough issue. But we got really close last year,” Bigknife said. “And folks are serious about getting a bill done.

Keith Sharp, attorney for the three card rooms in the Morongo/San Manuel/PokerStars partnership, said his clients believe licensing suitability should be left to state regulators.

Of four online poker bills pending in the California Senate and Assembly, one would limit website licenses to tribes and card rooms and another would include racing associations.

Two identical “shell bills” authored by Senate and Assembly Government Organization Committee chairmen lack language on license eligibility.

Alliance with PokerStars “never suggested” by Pechanga

Macarro bristled at rumors he blamed on industry blogs that his tribe was seeking an alliance with PokerStars and easing its demand for strong license suitability language.

“Unequivocally, Pechanga has never suggested an alliance with PokerStars in order to get a bill done,” Macarro said.

He also denied allegations by some tribal leaders, legislators and policymakers that Pechanga and others in the coalition are making “poison pill” demands intended to block or at least delay online poker legislation in California.

“It’s ridiculous. It’s also untrue,” Macarro said. He called an obstructionist strategy “shortsighted,” citing his tribe’s efforts last year to get near consensus agreement on bill language.

Three other tribes working on online poker legislation – Rincon Band of Luiseno Indians, Pala Band of Mission Indians and United Auburn Indian Community – split from the Pechanga coalition in February over the issue of tracks and “bad actor” provisions.

The tribes endorsed extending licenses to the tracks and urged compromise on “bad actor” and “tainted assets” provisions.

The tribes expressed frustration at the slow progress the Pechanga tribes were making on crafting bill language.

“It’s been a very slow discussion,” said a source with one of the three tribes who requested anonymity.

“We’re more focused on what needs to get resolved.”

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Dave Palermo
- Dave Palermo is an award-winning metropolitan newspaper reporter. He has written about American Indian governments for more than 20 years, working as an advocate for several tribes and tribal associations. He also has co-authored books on gambling and gambling law.