2010 could be monumental for poker in the Southeast

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Welcome to 2010 and what could be the biggest election year in history for poker players in the Southeast. Three states — Florida, Alabama and Georgia — could see dramatic evolutions in their states this election cycle, which would pave the way for a significant regional expansion for poker players and gamblers in our region. Here’s an overview of what each state is dealing with and over the next year I’ll keep you up to date as to major progress in these states as the November election approaches.

GEORGIA: Short on cash and ideas for raising revenue in an election year, the Georgia Legislature this month begins considering amending the Georgia Constitution to allow commercial gambling in their state. Georgia, which is a lottery jurisdiction, is looking at two proposals.

The first would add a downtown casino in Underground Atlanta that likely would be run by a large casino company bringing full-fledged casino gambling and, of course, no-limit poker action to the Peach State.

The second proposal is as a slower incremental step in that direction. A coalition of horsemen and entrepreneurs are pushing the idea of a three- or four-site thoroughbred racing circuit that would be anchored on the South Carolina border but include possibly a Valdosta location. The theme of the horseracing push is that a viable horse racing circuit could expand Georgia’s agriculture base and increase jobs and economic development in the rural areas of the state while raising money to help with the state’s budget issues.
Those following the horse racing industry know that for this proposal to achieve its goals casino gambling, including slot machines and table games, will be needed. Georgia will debate legislation during the spring, and if it passes, the voters will decide the issue in November.

ALABAMA: A full-blown gambling battle is going on in Yellowhammer State. Creative businessmen and local governments have morphed Alabama’s bingo laws into the basis for full-casino expansion. Projects such as the $80 million Country Crossing in Southern Alabama have opened, offering themselves as destination casino alternatives with amenities such as slot machines, RV parks, concert amphitheatres and destination hotels.

Gov. Robert Riley is doing his best to hold back what is a dramatic transformation of the state and its policy toward commercial gambling. His statewide gambling task force has staged midnight SWAT team raids of these venues and is battling in courts all over the state. Local judges defending economic development in their communities are issuing injunctive orders against the governor, and the state’s elected Supreme Court has weighed in with its orders, which have provided little certainty as to how this battle will end.
Voters will have their hand in deciding as Alabama will elect a new governor in November. Each major candidate appears to have a favorable position on Alabama’s gambling future with a statewide push for full commercial casinos a real possibility in the next four years. I expect the momentum will grow if the courts allow this state in the short term to continue to experience how destination casinos can become a real job creator and revenue producer for state and local governments.

FLORIDA: And now a look at the Sunshine State and its $64,000 question. Will this finally be the year that Florida gets it right? The Legislature this month took its first step in the right direction with the gaming committee of the Florida House of Representatives passing a proposal to “de-couple” the provisions of last year’s bill, which favored parimutuel facilities from those related to the Seminole Tribe’s gambling compact.

This committee, led by Rep. Bill Galvano (R – Bradenton) has taken the lead by rejecting the compact presented by Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminoles last year. In addition, it’s moving forward with putting in place the poker room expansions and business parity items for the South Florida parimutuel casinos.

This spring the House is expected to consider a host of other potential policy shifts, including the creation of a statewide gambling agency, destination commercial casinos and slot machines at every poker room in the state. The Senate is moving a little more cautiously, waiting for the Florida House to formulate its position on these issues before it begins to fashion its proposals.

Unfortunately for the Legislature, Seminoles supporter Crist will have the final say on any measure, which could present a problem. It’s possible the Legislature could authorize no-limit poker and a host of other gambling changes only to have the governor veto the measure. Crist, who has seen his popularity plummet in polls, has been unapologetic in his support of the Seminoles’ quest for a monopoly on gambling in Florida.

One wonders whether this position, while out of touch with the sentiments of poker players and voters, will continue to hold through the legislative session and into the summer when hopefully a piece of legislation that finally unshackles Florida’s poker rooms will be on his desk.

One thing is for certain: This will be the last year of his control of the issue since he’s leaving his office to pursue a U.S. Senate seat. He has a very difficult Republican primary against former Speaker of the House Marco Rubio, who poker players remember as the speaker that eased restrictions on the poker rooms giving us no-limit Texas Hold’em, improved tournament rules and the increases in the bet limits. I’m sure Florida’s players will be watching carefully and hopefully will let their voices be heard and their votes be counted if the industry is again ignored by the governor.

In all, the Southeast has a lot riding on 2010 and the November elections in these three states. The Southeast could become the fastest growing gambling market in the country and for poker players a very nice place to call home.

— Marc W. Dunbar is a shareholder with Tallahassee law firm Pennington, Moore, Wilkinson, Bell & Dunbar, P.A.  He represents several gaming clients before the Florida Legislature and teaches gambling and parimutuel law at the Florida State University College of Law.