Is Michigan Online Gambling Still a Possibility?
In 2016, Michigan was a surprise contender for the next state to legalize and regulate online poker. It came as a bit of a surprise when a bill emerged and passed a committee vote, but the bill died. Another attempt by the same state senator this year experienced a similar result. Or did it?
A renewed interest in daily fantasy sports and rumors of online gambling movement have emerged in the summer months. It warrants a look back at the past two years of Michigan online gaming efforts and what could happen yet this year.
The 2016 Surprise
Michigan Republican Senator Mike Kowall introduced SB.889, also known as the Lawful Internet Gaming Act, in April of 2016. Most industry experts had not seen the move coming, though a bit of a deeper dive into Kowall’s private life explained the lawmaker’s sudden interest in online poker.
The Detroit Free Press revealed that Eileen Kowall, Mike’s spouse, was a lobbyist working at MGS Consultants, a firm that had represented Amaya in the United States since 2007. Amaya, owner of PokerStars, has had a keen interest in the legalization of online poker in the US for many years, and often backs legislative efforts like Kowall’s. And in this case, three Amaya representatives testified at a 2016 Senate Regulatory Reform Committee hearing about SB.889.
Kowall claimed no conflict of interest existed due to his wife not working directly with Amaya or the specific bill, while groups like Common Cause expressed concern about the close ties.
Even so, Kowall’s bill moved forward through the aforementioned committee’s hearing, and the committee voted on the bill on June 8 and passed by an 8-1 margin. SB.889 then went to the Senate floor but died there in the summer of 2016.
A 2017 Surprise
The fact that Kowall raised the issue again in 2017 was not as much of a surprise as it was that his wife’s close ties to Amaya hadn’t interfered in the efforts. In addition, the issue came back to the legislature despite some concerns that legalized online gambling would benefit the three largest Detroit casinos but leave nearly two dozen Indian tribe-run facilities out in the cold.
The tactic they are using is: a change in federal online gaming law is imminent and it will pull the rug out from under Michigan
— Steve Ruddock (@SteveRuddock) March 8, 2017
Kowall did meet with numerous parties, including tribes, in the development of the 2017 bills, however. And he began by introducing two of four shell bills related to online gambling. Fellow legislators Rick Jones, Bertram Johnson, Curtis Hertel, Marty Knollenberg, and Rebekah Warren collaborated with Kowall to sponsor S.203 and S.204. But it was S.203 that mirrored his 2016 efforts most directly.
The bill again passed the Senate Regulatory Reform Committee but seemed to have died in the Senate.
However, there may be life in the effort yet.
DFS Bills and Poker Rumors
The first week of July saw Michigan State Representatives Aaron Miller and Jim Tedder give details about recently-introduced legislation to legalize and regulate daily fantasy sports. HB.4742 and HB.4743 were intended to benefit customers and companies by moving the games from their current unregulated, black market status to a market that ensures consumer protections. The law would require DFS operators to obtain licensing, ensure players meet minimum age requirements, and require companies to keep player funds separate for easy access.
Wait, why do those talking points sound familiar?
Oh yes, those are the exact talking points that supporters of online poker have been using for many years. Lobbying groups like the Poker Players Alliance make those same points about online poker, but DFS has grown immensely in popularity in the past several years, giving it a higher profile than poker and something to which many more legislators may be able to relate.
What is most interesting about the timing of the DFS details is that it coincides with some comments regarding the 2017 online gambling legislation by legislators close to the issue. Changes have been proposed for S.203, and Kowall seems intent on bringing it back to the discussion phase. Whether it is connected in any way to proposed DFS legislation or simply a coincidental push remains to be seen.
— Chris Krafcik (@ckrafcik) July 7, 2017
As more information is revealed in the coming days, the intentions in Michigan may become clearer. Meanwhile, online supporters might consider contacting their legislators in Michigan to express a desire to see online poker legalized and regulated. Public support for a bill might help spur movement and provide necessary momentum.