By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- Given the borderless freedom of the Internet, online gaming is almost inevitable, according to Senate Majority Leader Stan Rosenberg.
"I personally don't see how you avoid it," Rosenberg told a panel assembled by the Gaming Commission Tuesday.
An architect of the 2011 law that legalized casinos and the presumed successor of the Senate presidency next year, Rosenberg told reporters he would look for the recommendations of the commission.
The law charged the commission with monitoring federal Internet gaming developments and coordinating with the treasurer on protecting the state's Lottery and gaming interests.
Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby, who is heading up the awarding of the state's three available casino licenses - after the commission awarded a slots parlor license to Penn National in Plainville - said decisions should be deferred until that process is complete.
"We shouldn't do anything seriously until the casino licenses are awarded," Crosby said. He said, "It's only appropriate that they be at the table when we figure out where we're going to go with Internet gaming."
A central argument for legalizing casinos in Massachusetts was the draw the Connecticut casinos had on Massachusetts gamblers. On the Internet there are no long car trips standing between potential gamblers and online games, though it is not legal to play across state lines.
"You can't control the Internet. When people turn on their computer they go where they want to go," Rosenberg told reporters. "We're just at the early stages of trying to understand how this actually works, and given that you can organize businesses inside the Commonwealth, within the country, and internationally and set them up online - so we need to figure out how that all works."
New Jersey, Delaware and Nevada have legalized online gaming, and legislation is under consideration in nine states, including Massachusetts, and Congress, according to GamblingCompliance, a regulatory news source.
At a forum Tuesday, Bally Technologies Senior Director of Interactive Jeffrey Allen demonstrated an online Golden Nugget casino that is available only for residents of New Jersey, with a "stringent" verification that requires Social Security numbers, mobile phone numbers and home addresses. He said problem gamblers could self-exclude from the online casino for periods of one or five years.
Treasurer Steven Grossman has explored the potential for establishing online State Lottery games and the Lottery backs legislation that it says will allow it to begin experimenting.
The advent of casinos in Massachusetts, in addition to creating new challenges for out-of-state gambling facilities, will also create competition for the Massachusetts Lottery, where profits are directed to cities and towns in the form of local aid.
The public has had glimpses of more unregulated forms of online gambling as lawmakers and law enforcement have strived to keep up with the capabilities of modern technology. Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in 2006. In the spring of 2011, federal authorities cracked down on foreign companies running online poker sites in the U.S. In December 2011, the Department of Justice determined a 1961 law allowed for state-regulated online gaming, but not sports bets.
GamblingCompliance Americas Editor James Kilsby said Delaware and Nevada have allowed their poker players to compete against one another online, which he compared to state lotteries pooling play in games, such as Powerball.
Gaming Commissioner James McHugh said he believes it is "highly likely" that online gaming will take place in Massachusetts, and said the commission will continue to discuss the interplay between casinos, online gaming and the Lottery. The commission is "a long way from" making recommendations, he said.
Rosenberg said lawmakers had "punted" on the issue of online gaming when writing the new law. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr filed a budget amendment last year that would have allowed licensed casinos to obtain online gaming licenses, and he has a bill (S 197) before the Legislature.
After his speech, Rosenberg told reporters that the gaming law should not be reopened at the behest of casino magnate Steve Wynn, who reportedly wants a deal similar to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe - though he left the door open to changes to other laws.
"We should be making policy in the interest of the Commonwealth and all of this enterprise, so we shouldn't be driven by the opinions of any one person," Rosenberg said. Asked about the provision that gamblers must immediately pay taxes on more than $600 in winnings, which reportedly concerns Wynn, Rosenberg said, "There are other statutes that are involved other than the gaming statute."
Rosenberg said he is "pretty confident" the Mashpee Wampanoag will be granted land in trust by the federal government, a key hurdle in the tribe's bid to build a casino in a Taunton industrial park. The prospect of federal recognition ushering in tribal gaming was a "major impetus" for the gaming law, said Rosenberg.
Although tribes are limited in their gaming pursuits by what forms of gambling are legal throughout the state, Rosenberg said, the legalization of bingo would have given tribes the legal authority to establish essentially slot parlors.
"They would be able to do electronic bingo. Electronic bingo is indistinguishable from slots, therefore they'd be able to have a slot parlor. If you're going to do gaming you want to have the maximum benefit in jobs and tax revenues and a slot parlor is not a means of doing that. Resort casinos are the job creators in the gaming industry," said Rosenberg. He said, "Both tribe and state government said, 'If we're going down this path, let's do it right.'"