Outlook favorable for WV online gambling bill?

Sponsor Predicts Bipartisan Support For West Virginia Online Gambling Bill

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Less than a year after rolling out a regulated sports betting industry, West Virginia may be in the mood for more expansion. A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Del. Jason Barrett, is working to bring the state’s licensed casinos online, too.

The West Virginia Lottery Interactive Wagering Act (H 2934) would legalize online gambling along the same track as WV sports betting, which lawmakers convincingly approved 11 months ago.

Calling WV “a pioneer” for such legislation in a statement to Online Poker Report, the sponsor aims to enhance his state’s reputation as a model for others to follow.

“With our iGaming legislation, we seek once again to lead the charge by permitting traditional land-based casino gaming to be conducted via electronic devices. If passed, iGaming has the potential to bring millions of dollars in revenue to our state.”

Barrett introduced his proposal last Friday, moving it to the House Judiciary for its first consideration.

New WV online gambling bill at a glance

The bill appears well-drafted, allowing the state’s four racetrack casinos and The Greenbrier to operate online gambling sites. Those five properties are the same five that currently offer WV sports betting.

As it does for sports betting, the WV Lottery Commission would regulate and administer WV interactive gaming. Five-year licenses would cost $250,000 apiece, and revenue would be taxed at a rate of 10 percent.

Language in the bill directs regulators to draw upon best practices in other markets when drafting rules for online gambling.

The commission shall examine the regulations implemented in other states where interactive wagering is conducted and shall, as far as practicable, adopt a similar regulatory framework through promulgation of rules.

For the time being, New Jersey represents the gold standard for regulated US online gambling. Neighboring Pennsylvania is also preparing to launch its own industry in the coming months, giving WV regulators plenty of experience on which to draw.

It’s also worth noting that the WV bill does not contain the sort of “bad actor” clause that would expressly exclude online poker sites like PokerStars from the marketplace.

Prospective WV online gambling sites

The bill does, however, include terms that would prohibit some offshore sites from offering WV interactive gaming.

(a) The commission may not grant any license, pursuant to the provisions of this article, if evidence satisfactory to the commission exists that the applicant: …

(4) Is a company or individual who has been directly employed by any illegal or offshore book that serviced the United States, or otherwise accepted black market wagers from individuals located in the United States.

This section borrows language from the WV sports betting law verbatim. Offshore gambling companies serving the US market illegally, such as Bovada, would likely be excluded from licensure under those terms.

Given their head start with sports betting, though, a few legal gambling companies would surely seize an opportunity to expand into online casino games and/or online poker in WV.

Penn National Gaming, for instance, now holds a license to offer PA online gambling using the Hollywood Casino brand and an IGT platform. Presuming those products are functional and profitable, porting them over to the Hollywood property in Charles Town would be a no-brainer.

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Will WV interactive gaming float?

Don’t be surprised if this effort garners traction in Charleston.

Barrett’s bill is the second WV interactive gaming bill filed for 2019, joining the one Del. Shawn Fluharty introduced in January. That bill (H 2178) has been lingering for three years without progress, and it looks like the sponsor may abandon his own efforts. Fluharty has added his name to H 2934 as one of 10 cosponsors.

That list also includes Del. Dianna Graves, by the way, one of the relative few who voted (77-21) against WV sports betting last year.

The WV Lottery has expressed some recent reservations about regulating online gambling, but the agency does support separate bills to expand its offerings. Those close to the situation maintain that the new bill has a strong chance of passage this year.

Barrett’s outlook is favorable, too, of course:

“We have made great steps thus far in providing greater flexibility for the gaming industry in West Virginia, and I am encouraged by the support we have received on this particular iGaming initiative thus far. Our House finance chairman has a real interest in taking up the legislation and I believe it has great potential to pass with bipartisan support both in the House and Senate.”

Time is getting tight, however. The WV lawmaking session ends on March 9.

- Eric is a reporter and writer covering regulated US gambling, sports betting, and DFS. He comes from a poker background, formerly on staff at PokerNews and the World Poker Tour.
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