Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack (R-Palm Springs)

BY BEN GOAD AND JIM MILLER
STAFF WRITERS
bgoad@pe.com; jmiller@pe.com

Published: 25 October 2011 09:42 PM

Washington — The U.S. economy is losing billions of dollars annually to unregulated underground and offshore poker websites that can prey on compulsive and underage gamblers with impunity, proponents of legalized Internet gaming argued Tuesday before a House panel.

But huge questions remain about whether proposed federal legislation to legalize online poker might harm state governments and Indian tribes — including several local ones.

With the stakes high, Rep. Mary Bono Mack , R-Palm Springs , whose Riverside County district is home to seven tribal casinos, called advocates and experts on all sides of the thorny issue to testify before the Subcommittee on Commerce Manufacturing and Trade.

Following 2½ hours of testimony, Bono Mack, who is the subcommittee chairwoman, said she believes it would be a mistake for the government to attempt to stand in the way of the power of the Internet. But she said she wants more information before formally considering a bill to legalize and regulate online poker.

“There are clearly a lot of questions and issues,” Bono Mack said. “I think to rush it would be a mistake.”

The bill, penned by poker aficionado and Republican Texas Rep. Joe Barton, follows 2006 legislation that effectively outlawed Internet gambling for money. Barton on Tuesday said the law is unenforceable and has only led Americans to sites that are foreign-based and illegal.

“People are playing poker on the internet in the United States for money today,” Barton said. “It’s not regulated, and so these sites are offshore, overseas and, consequently, outside of the ability for us to tax the winnings.”

Americans, including hundreds of thousands between the ages of 14 and 22, spend as much as $6 billion annually on Internet gambling sites — some of which are rigged or otherwise fraudulent, said Parry Aftab, an advisory board member for FairPlay USA. That group, made up of law enforcement officials, consumer protection experts and poker players, is among several organizations that sided with most lawmakers on the panel calling for congressional action to address the issue.

But while there appeared to be general agreement in support of legal, regulated online poker, concerns over how it would work cloud any path forward for the plan.

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