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Tribes want input on online gambling legislation

// Robert F. Bukaty/AP

Representatives from Indian tribes on Thursday urged a Senate panel to ensure their gambling operations and rights are adequately protected if Congress moves to legalize online poker or other forms of Internet gambling.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee examined how proposals that call for legalizing online poker might impact the current gaming operations offered by Indian tribes. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., are currently in negotiations on developing a proposal that would legalize online poker in exchange for tightening restrictions on other forms of Internet gambling.

Congress passed legislation in 2006 aimed at outlawing Internet gambling by prohibiting banks, credit card companies and others from processing bets related to online gaming. However, that law has been put into doubt after the Justice Department late last year reversed its interpretation of the 1961 Wire Act, which dealt with state gambling activities, and said the law only applies to sports betting.

"With Indian gaming representing over 40 percent of the gaming market, generating over $27.2 billion annually to this nation's economy, not to mention the jobs and economic benefits Indian gaming brings to some of the most impoverished areas in the country, it is inconceivable, given the recent change in the DoJ opinion, and with such sweeping changes in gaming being contemplated that tribes are not being consulted," Glen Gobin, secretary of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington state, told the committee.

Indian Affairs Chairman Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, has released a draft bill that would outline rules for allowing online gambling by Indian tribes. Like other measures that have been introduced, the Tribal Online Gaming Act would only authorize online poker. Supporters say unlike other forms of Internet gambling, online poker is a game of skill and less susceptible to manipulation.

The bill would establish an Office of Tribal Online Gaming within the Department of Commerce to provide oversight and regulation of Indian online gambling operations. This office would be required to ensure that tribes given licenses to operate online poker operations have adequate safeguards in place such as ensuring players are at least 21 and live in a location in the United States that allows gambling.

Gobin and others said the job of regulating Indian Internet gambling operations should be given to the National Indian Gaming Commission, the independent federal agency that oversees tribal brick-and-mortar gambling, and not the Commerce Department.

"No other federal agency possesses comparable experience and expertise in the context of tribal gaming," Elizabeth Homer, a former commission member and lawyer who now represents some Indian tribes, said.

A House bill offered by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, that would legalize online poker also would establish an office within the Commerce Department to oversee and regulate state online poker activities.

Meanwhile, former Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., who now works as a consultant for the gambling industry, urged tribal officials not to wait and see what Congress does on the issue. Instead, he urged them to start setting up policies and regimes that would allow them to launch online gaming operations quickly if lawmakers pass Internet gambling legislation. He and others noted that many states are already moving to offer Internet gambling operations within their borders in response to the Justice Department's revised interpretation of the Wire Act.

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