10:02 PM PST on Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO – Two Inland Southern California tribes with large casinos are pushing legislation to legalize Internet poker in the state, the opening bid in what could be an intense Capitol fight involving tribes who oppose the idea.

The Morongo Band of Mission Indians near Banning and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians near San Bernardino are the leading members of a new group of tribes and card clubs called the California Online Poker Association. It is the sponsor of the bill introduced Monday, the first day of the 2011-12 session.

The measure would put a “licensed entity” that already has a casino or card club in California in charge of an “intrastate Internet poker website.” In return, the entity would pay the state an unspecified share of the revenue.

Federal law prohibits online gambling, but increasingly popular websites based outside the U.S. attract an estimated 2 million California poker players who bet as much as $300 million annually, according to an estimate earlier this year.

States can license their own legal games; none has done so. In Congress, meanwhile, fast-evolving online gambling legislation championed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, could go to a vote before year’s end.

Supporters of this week’s California proposal called it a way to keep gambling revenue in-state, while protecting online poker enthusiasts from unscrupulous offshore gambling sites.

“It’s just not safe to play poker on these sites,” James Ramos, the chairman of the San Manuel tribe, said in a statement distributed by the online poker association. It includes 29 tribes and some of the state’s largest card clubs.

Critics said the bill would give its sponsors a monopoly on online poker. The bill would make it a crime to play poker on any other site.

“In our opinion, internet gaming of some sort is coming. It’s a given,” said David Quintana, the political director of the California Tribal Business Alliance, which includes several large tribes with casinos.

But Quintana called this week’s measure “the equivalent of the state passing a bill to give Chevron the sole right to operate gas stations in California.”

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, closely resembles a proposal that has been pushed by the Morongo tribe since mid-2009. It’s the first of what’s expected to be several online gambling measures to emerge in the coming legislative session.

State Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, leads the Senate committee with oversight of gambling issues. He plans to re-introduce a bill to legalize online gambling that stalled in committee in June.

That bill would have let the state award 20-year contracts to up to three operators to run legal online gambling websites.

Online poker groups also are crafting potential legislation. And different tribes or tribal groups could come forward with their own ideas.

Anti-gambling groups have said legalizing online poker would create more problem gamblers. The issue also has deeply split California’s powerful tribal gaming industry.

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