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Michigan Lawmaker Looks To Legalize Poker, Other Casino Games On The Internet This Year

Hopes Are High For Measure In 2017

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A new proposal to legalize and regulate online casinos was introduced in Michigan earlier this month and could find itself on the governor’s desk by the end of the year, according to the lawmaker pushing it forward in the House.

State Rep. Brandt Iden, a Republican, told Card Player that hopes are high this year for his consumer protection measure, but there’s still work to be done to get the state’s casinos behind it.

Casino gambling is big business in the state, as the three Detroit casinos win about $1.4 billion a year combined and the 23 tribal casinos win about $1.5 billion combined annually.

If Michigan pulls the trigger this year it would be the fourth state with regulated Las Vegas-style gaming over the web. The last state to pass a bill for regulation was New Jersey in 2013. Over in the Michigan Senate, a companion internet betting measure from Sen. Mike Kowall, also a Republican, cleared a committee vote back in March. The Senate legislation passed the same committee in 2016 but never gained enough traction. Meanwhile, discussions have continued.

Card Player had the chance to speak to Rep. Iden about the chances for his measure in the House and some of the roadblocks to getting the measure through both chambers.

Brian Pempus: What are your motivations for pushing the i-gaming bill this year?

Brandt Iden: This is an issue I’ve been following for quite some time, obviously you are familiar with it, and you know that Sen. Kowall in the Senate introduced a version of this as well. He and I have had conversations on this, and what this really comes down to is consumer protection. We know that people are gaming on the internet in the state of Michigan, in fact so much so that – I have a university very close to me – when I talk to college students and I ask them if they play online, they say that they play poker online and that they don’t realize it’s illegal in the state.

BP: Sen. Kowall seemed bullish on the bill’s chances last year, while you’ve been saying it might take some time. Do you two differ on the timeline for passing the legislation?

BI: Sen. Kowall’s bill did come out of committee but it appears to be stalled on the Senate floor for support. We thought that we’d strategically try to work this through the House. I want to get it to the governor’s desk for signature and the only way I’m going to be able to do that is if I get all the casinos, our three main casinos as well as our tribal casinos, on board with what we are trying to do. If I can get all those individuals to the table and supporting it we’ll be able to pass this in the House and Senate and get the governor to sign it without threat of a veto. I want to give this the proper time in order to work with the casinos and make sure we have the right language in the legislation that they can support. They came out with some valid concerns in the committee, which need to be worked through. Hopefully over the course of the next three weeks or so, the timeline I put on this, we can get this bill to where it needs to be and hopefully get it out of committee by the end of October.

BP: After your bill gets out of committee, what are its prospects for the remainder of the year? Is this more of a play for next year?

BI: Well, it’s my desire to get it done this year. We have plenty of time in November and December to get this out of the House and out of the Senate. I believe that if I can get the casinos to buy into what we are doing it can move quite quickly. All of these gaming houses understand that this is the next wave for them, this is the wave of the future. They know that if they want to continue to get the millennial gamer to the table, pun intended, they have to start embracing technology and new ways of doing gaming. Philosophically they understand that Michigan will get there. I believe that one of their major concerns is that it’s an equitable playing field for all. Obviously we are dealing with sovereign lands and sovereign nations with the tribes, and of course we have the three casinos that aren’t subject to that, and I believe it’s just bridging the language to make sure everyone feels like they are going to have an equitable stake in the market. The casinos get concerned and worried about each other if for some reason the language in the bill gives preferential treatment. That’s not what we are trying to do. We are trying to level the playing field so everyone can enter the market at the same time and any [gamer] in the state of Michigan has the ability to play with any casino that wants to participate.

BP: In Pennsylvania, they’ve been talking about i-gaming for years now and it’s been wrapped up with the budget talks. In Michigan, does the budget have any role in the online gaming debate?

BI: It hasn’t at this point in time. One of the issues that we’re working through is getting an estimated dollar figure that Michigan would potentially see from i-gaming. At this point in time our main focus is on the consumer protection issue and making sure players have a fair game. Michigan’s budget starts Oct. 1 and our budget is set for this year. What we would be looking at is potentially factoring this into the 2018-19 budget. At this point in time it hasn’t been part of the conversation, but it could be as we get closer to getting this bill out of the House.

BP: Michigan has online lottery offerings. Has that helped with the online casino discussions because the state is kind of at the forefront of the industry already?

BI: Absolutely. I will tell you that the casinos recognize that. Our online lottery has done very well, and it’s continued to grow since we got it. I’ve talked to constituents of mine who use it and enjoy it. I believe the casinos see that and they understand that, as I’ve said before, it’s the future of gaming for them. One of the questions continues to be that we want to make sure we are expanding the reach of those who want to game and not limiting ourselves to one pocket of folks versus another. This [legislation] is a broad approach to bring other people into the industry.