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Joe Barton is all in on a bill to legalize online poker 28/06/2011
Richard Whitehouse
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, introduced a bill Friday to legalize online poker, which Barton calls a “game of skill.”

Current law permits playing online poker in the USA, but the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006 bars players from collecting money on their winnings. In April the FBI shut down three major poker sites – Full Tilt Poker, Poker Stars and Absolute Poker – and a grand jury charged 11 defendants with money laundering, bank fraud and violation of gambling laws.

Barton’s bill would legalize the online game and create a federal agency to oversee and regulate the sites. The legislation also requires the websites to register with gaming commissions, though they would have to register in a state that already allows gambling.

Under the bill, people across the country would be able to play online poker for money , but each state would also have the choice to opt out of the law. Other forms of online gambling would still be illegal.

“We want to have an iron-clad system to make sure that those who play for money are playing in an honest, fair system where they can reap the benefits of their winnings,” Barton said in a press release issued from his office. “To put it simply, this bill is about having the personal freedom to play a skill-based game you enjoy without fear of breaking the law.”

Barton – who has admitted to enjoying a game of poker, though not the Internet version – had bipartisan support as he introduced the legislation to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. His bill had 11 co-sponsors, including Rep. Ron Paul, R-Lake Jackson, who is in the midst of cultivating his own controversial bill to legalize marijuana.

Barton said he checked around informally with Republican leadership and felt good enough about the bill's chances to move forward.

"This may be the year that the stars align — I hope so," Barton told the AP in advance of a news conference in Washington.

Barton said the issue has traction because the indictments spurred poker players to renew their push on the issue, lawmakers are looking for ways to relieve a budget crunch, and previous efforts — though unsuccessful — have laid the groundwork for a detailed, workable solution.

"I think this bill is going to benefit from a lot of spade-work that's been done the past two or three Congresses," said Barton, a senior member of the House's energy and commerce committee.

The bill, which has 11 co-sponsors including seven Democrats, was met with approval from the Poker Players Alliance, a Washington-based group of poker enthusiasts funded in part by PokerStars and Full Tilt through an Internet gambling association in Canada.

The commercial casino industry's primary trade group, the American Gaming Association, praised Barton for addressing the issue but stopped short of actually endorsing his bill.

Potential operators would apply through a newly created office in the Commerce Department and need to have gambling licenses under at least one state or tribe.

Provisions in the bill restrict those who could apply for a license for the first three years to licensed gambling companies that have significant assets, and require significant vendors to be scrutinized the same way.

The bill would not make it legal to gamble on other casino games like blackjack, craps and slots through the Internet. In casinos, poker games are different because they involve players gambling against each other — not against the house, which has a mathematical advantage.

Barton said he would not support legalizing other casino games online because he believes poker involves more skill than luck.

"We're going to try to get a bill on the president's desk in this Congress," Barton said.