Sen. Mike Kowall on the Michigan online gambling veto

Former Michigan Online Gambling Sponsor Sees Path To Passage In 2019

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Imagine spending 4 1/2 years of your life working on one specific task.

In your final week on the job, you log overtime to get it finished, staying well past midnight on your last day in the office.

You make the extra effort because you truly believe it will yield tangible benefits for your employer and the general public.

Then a week after you’re gone, your boss — who is also leaving the organization — destroys all of your work with a sledgehammer on his way out the door.

That’s essentially what happened with online gambling in Michigan last month, as former Gov. Rick Synder acted to undo the hard work of Sen. Mike Kowall.

This week, Kowall spoke with Online Poker Report about Snyder’s veto of Kowall’s carefully crafted online gambling bill.

Michigan online gambling comes up short

The sponsor for Michigan online gambling exerted uncommon effort in 2018, ushering his bill through the legislature mere hours before adjournment.

Although Kowall had every indication Snyder would sign it, he told OPR he wouldn’t hold it against his fellow Republican.

“I’m trying to understand why he did that, but I’m just going to give him the benefit of the doubt,” Kowall said. “Rick Snyder is a good guy. I don’t have hard feelings. But at the same time, you put 4 1/2 years into something, and it’s going to be a little disheartening when it doesn’t get signed into law.”

While Kowall respects the decision, he does not agree with the reasoning.

Governor’s concerns unfounded

Synder vetoed the bill in part over concerns that iGaming could be considered an unlawful expansion of gambling. He also cited a desire to protect the revenue of the Michigan Lottery, which helps support the state’s public schools.

According to Kowall, it doesn’t add up.

Traditional gambling is currently available at Michigan’s tribal and commercial casinos, and limited iGaming already exists in the form of the Michigan online lottery.

“Really, it was a weak argument on the executive’s part, because we have online gaming here now,” Kowall said. “But it’s online lottery games, not online poker or online sports betting.”

Snyder’s logic also runs contrary to statistical data — of which he was apparently aware — demonstrating that MI online poker, casino games and the lottery would all appeal to different sets of consumers.

“We did prove that it did not affect the School Aid Fund, that it did not affect the lottery,” Kowall said. “I don’t know what it takes. Their argument didn’t hold water in my book.”

Would the new Michigan governor sign it?

Kowall served with new Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the state Senate from 2011 to 2015, and he confirmed that the two share a good rapport.

The governor hasn’t yet addressed iGaming in public, but she did say that she supports legalizing Michigan sports betting during her successful campaign.

“I assume the House sponsor is going to reintroduce it with the new governor,” Kowall said. “And knowing [Gov. Whitmer] the way I do, I think it stands a fair chance. She’s more inclined to sign bills like that.”

That House sponsor is another long-standing champion for Michigan online gambling, Rep. Brandt Iden.

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Kowall seeks to remain engaged

Even though he has now termed out of office, Kowall aims to continue supporting Michigan online gambling in an advisory capacity.

“I’m more than willing to sit down and talk to whoever over the next weeks and months to see if we can breathe life back into the thing,” he said, “because I do believe it to be a good revenue source for the state.”

The two 2018 sponsors have somewhat differing outlooks for 2019, though.

On the one hand, Rep. Iden cautions that the turnover following last year’s midterm elections could require time to educate new lawmakers on the issue. Kowall, however, expects frequent visits from tribal and commercial stakeholders to generate even more support.

“The good thing now is we’re going to have the casinos in Detroit and the tribes pushing for it,” Kowall said. “They were out in front of our chambers lobbying for it at the end of the day and putting a great deal of effort into it, which was surprising to see since they all were neutral for so long.”

- Matthew began writing about legislative efforts to regulate online poker in 2007 after UIGEA interfered with his hobby of playing small-stakes online poker while working as a sportswriter at the Los Angeles Daily News. Covering the topic for Bluff Magazine, PokerNews and now Online Poker Report, he has interviewed four U.S. Congressmen and 40+ state legislators. His poker writing has been cited by The Atlantic, and Matt also has written on a variety of topics for Playboy Magazine, Men's Journal, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly and
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