The word “bipartisan” is not common in the Iowa capitol when it comes to major pieces of legislation. Whether the issue is education policy, budgeting practices, property taxes, abortion regulations, or gun rights, the Iowa Legislature is about as partisan as it gets.
Ever since Republicans took control of the Iowa House of Representatives and Terry Branstad reclaimed the Governor’s office, the Democrat controlled State Senate has served as the major obstacle for Republican proposals. Besides the constitutionally mandated duties of the legislature and a handful of other issues, not much legislation found the necessary bipartisan support to make it to the Senate floor.
So when a bill originates from the Senate and garners bipartisan support, it gets one’s attention. Senate File 2275 was one such bill. The bill would allow Iowa-based casinos to offer internet poker within the state of Iowa. Three Republican Senators, Rick Bertrand, Bill Dix, and Kent Sorenson voted for the bill in the State Government Committee. Five other Republican Senators, Bill Anderson, Merlin Bartz, Sandy Greiner, Tim Kapucian, and Jack Whitver supported the bill when it came to a vote earlier this week. It passed the Senate on a bipartisan 29 to 20 vote after only ten minutes of debate, during which no one spoke against it.
The bill’s future is now in the House’s hands, but House Speaker Kraig Paulsen said on Thursday that he’s not interested in debating the Internet Poker bill, making it all but dead. Paulsen’s told James Lynch of the Cedar Rapids Gazette that the bill had a “general lack of interest” with House Members. House State Government Chairman, Rep. Peter Cownie told the Gazette, “We really didn’t expect it to come over from the Senate,” and thus it didn’t pass out of his committee before the legislative funnel date. There are still ways for the bill to come up for debate, but Speaker Paulsen’s posture towards the bill makes that seem unlikely.
Paulsen is wise not to rush the bill through the House like it went through the Senate. Iowa would be the first state to allow Internet poker, and doing so would represent the largest expansion of gambling in the state’s history. No longer would gambling be limited to just the 18 casinos in Iowa, it would be available anywhere an Internet connection is available.
Just six years ago, Iowa Lottery machines that looked and functioned like slot machines outraged Iowans to such an extent that the legislature banned them. Now, some in the legislature seem willing to expand gambling in Iowa again to find additional revenue for the state.
After voting for the Internet Poker bill in committee, Senator Dix justified his vote by telling Radio Iowa, “We have a situation here in Iowa where Iowa citizens are not being protected, and this bill will do that. We have unscrupulous operators from off-shore accounts who are preying on the citizens of Iowa, and this bill seeks to solve that problem.”
Internet gambling is illegal in the United States, but as Senator Dix points out, there are still offshore sites where people can gamble if they so choose. Other Republicans have cited the “consumer protection” argument to justify their support of the bill, but other like Sen. Bertrand see it as an individual freedom issue. Bertrand told Radio Iowa, “I don’t see this as an expansion of gaming. I see this as an expansion of an existing freedom,” Bertrand said. “I think it has great potential for Iowa for us to get out in front of this and be a leader nationwide.”
The problem with Dix and Bertrand’s position is that it opens the door for the state to regulate a whole bunch of activities that people do that are currently illegal. What is the difference between legalizing online gambling and legalizing drug use or prostitution? In both cases one could argue that Iowa consumers would be better protected if the state regulated those activities. Additionally, legalizing those activities would also mean that the state could also collect taxes on those goods and services.
The fact that the senate wouldn’t even have a serious debate before passing the bill really bothers me and should bother all Iowans. It’s as if the legislature learned nothing from the Iowa Lottery’s Touch Play fiasco. Not only did that the citizens of the state demand action in that case, machine operators sued the state and won, which means the legislature’s actions in that case cost the state money.
In addition to the social impact that increased gambling brings, there are a number of issues that deserve to be discussed. Here are just a few questions from the top of my head.
How would age restrictions actually be enforced?
One can’t purchase a lottery ticket with a credit card, so is the only way to buy into online poker games a debit card?
How do you ensure that only Iowans are playing online?
Does Internet gambling help economic development? Seems to me it would take business out of casinos, which also hurts gas stations, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses in communities with casinos.
Republicans support limited government, so why the desire to find new revenue sources for state government? Sen. Joni Ernst’s amendment to put the revenues in the Road Use Tax Fund was a good idea. Senate Democrats and the Des Moines Register columnist Kathie Obradovich didn’t understand why it was a good idea. Putting those dollars into the Road Use Tax Fund would prohibit lawmakers from getting their hands on it. It’s one of the few funds legislators can’t raid because it’s constitutionally protected. Still, expanding gambling in Iowa will just expand the size of government.
Speaker Paulsen should be commended for basically saying that the Internet Poker bill is dead on arrival to the House. An issue of this magnitude deserves a lot of debate and public involvement. Sadly, there are probably the votes in the House to pass the bill, so Iowans who are opposed to the expansion of gambling should not let their guard down, even with Paulsen’s remarks.
Iowa has enough gambling. We don’t need it in every home and on every smart phone. The legislature should focus on creating a better business climate in Iowa, not trying to find more gaming revenues.
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