Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tankers Always Fold; or, Gov. Christie and the NJ Bill

One sorta-truism a person comes to recognize after years of observing poker tournaments is how players who tank for a long time very often will fold their hands. I’m pretty sure F-Train was the one who long ago first articulated the maxim to me as we both were watching a player take several minutes to decide on his action...

“Tankers always fold.”

I’ve been to Atlantic City on a couple of occasions over the last two years to cover poker tournaments. The first was in March 2011 when I helped report on a WSOP Circuit event at Caesars. Then I went back last month to Harrah’s Resort AC for another WSOP-C event. Both times there was a lot of buzz going around concerning possible online gambling legislation in New Jersey and its prospects for being signed into law.

Actually, the first time I was there the conversations were all centered on the fact that Governor Chris Christie had just a few days before vetoed an online gambling bill, having waited until the last possible moment to do so before it would have become law by default. Both the NJ State Assembly and Senate had passed the bill by wide margins, with more than 85% of legislators voting in favor in both cases. But Christie was not ready to make New Jersey the first state to pass its own online gambling bill, and so all the talk was of the what-might-have-been variety.

At the time the governor -- a former U.S. attorney -- cited several reasons for his reticence regarding the bill, including questions about its constitutionality within his state. Many commentators additionally believed Christie was unwilling to sign the bill without some assurance that doing so would not conflict with federal laws concerning online gambling, including the Wire Act.

Months passed, and in December 2011 that memo emanating from the offices of the U.S. Department of Justice surfaced, a memo that revised an opinion regarding the Wire Act. The memo indicated that it was the DOJ’s position that the half-century old law only applied to sports betting, and thus when 2012 began efforts were redoubled by legislators in many states to try to forward online gambling legislation, including in New Jersey.

Nevada had already by then become the first state to get a bill signed into law (in mid-2011), and so when the DOJ memo arrived that state was already in position to begin fielding applications to grant licenses. Delaware followed suit in June 2012, and a few other states have been considering various kinds of online gambling legislation as well.

Meanwhile, at the end of the year New Jersey was again considering another online gambling bill during my visit early last month. Soon afterwards legislators again passed a bill, the vote being nearly unanimous this time, and as 2012 concluded most of the reports regarding the bill were suggesting that without the Wire Act obstacle, Christie was “likely” to sign the bill into law in short order.

But three weeks into January that likelihood has begun to dim, and now Christie has but a couple of weeks left in the 45-day period within which he is to act on the bill (i.e., sign or veto it) or not act and see it become law by default. He gave a state of the state speech a little over a week ago without mentioning the issue, prompting consternation by NJ state senator Ray Lesniak, the bill’s leading sponsor. Lesniak then told Card Player a couple of days ago that while he doesn’t know what Christie will do with regard to the bill -- other than likely wait until the last minute again -- he isn’t terribly hopeful.

Last night Christie did finally opine publicly about the bill and online gambling, and his comments added further reason not to be optimistic about the governor’s signing A2578 into law.

Each month, Christie appears on a Trenton FM station to field questions for an hour on a show called “Ask the Governor.” Not too surprisingly, a lot of the questions during last night’s show concerned rebuilding efforts in the state following Hurricane Sandy. But toward the end of the hour, a caller named Joseph did manage to get through to ask about Christie’s intentions regarding the bill.

Christie said he was still tanking on that one, adding that when it came to online gambling, there are “two things I’m concerned about.”

The governor’s first concern is that legalizing online gambling “may drive traffic away from Atlantic City” brick-and-mortar casinos. “If people can gamble in their own homes on their laptops, why are they going to Atlantic City?” That’s an idea we’ve heard brought up before (and roundly refuted by the bill’s proponents).

His second concern had to do with “setting up a whole new generation of addicted gamblers.” Echoing a sentiment voiced by the ultra-conservative wing of his party with whom he’s been more than willing to butt heads in recent weeks, Christie suggested that “if you can sit on the edge of your bed on your laptop and gamble away the paycheck, that’s a lot different than making the decision to go down to Atlantic City to gamble in a casino.” We’ve heard that one many times before, too. (I’m remembering Jay Leno follow a similar line of argument on his show back in the fall of 2010 when Barney Frank was his guest.)

Christie noted that these two concerns were “in part the reasons that I vetoed the bill before, in addition to some ways that it was constructed that made no sense, either.” He then concluded his response by saying that he’ll probably be making a decision regarding A2578 “in the next couple of days.”

Christie didn’t say whether or not he had problems with the bill’s construction this time around, nor did he mention anything about its constitutionality or any potential conflicts with the feds. Rather Christie’s concerns have more to do with less specific, hard-to-prove notions about the bill’s possible effects on the New Jersey economy as well as what would happen to a certain percentage of its citizens whose problem gambling may lead them to self-inflicted ruin.

Christie is up for re-election this coming November. He also has become a national figure and potential Republican candidate for president in 2016. He’s a popular figure both locally and nationwide. Whereas the two concerns he raised last night regarding online gambling were somewhat vague, the potential political consequences of his supporting an online gambling bill perhaps seem more clear. Signing A2578 would become something he’d have to answer for on the campaign trail. In other words, the former lawyer would not only have to change his apparent position on the issue, but he’d have to become much more convincing when arguing against the very objections he’s currently raising regarding it.

All of which is to say, I’d be more than surprised if a veto weren’t coming, perhaps even sooner than just before the Feb. 7 deadline. Thus New Jersey will not be challenging Nevada’s leading status when it comes to online gambling in the near future, or perhaps for many years to come, either.

I suppose we might step back from this story and remark on how the idea of gambling online has perhaps reached a stage of cultural acceptance, just like doing other things online (communicating, banking, shopping, receiving news/entertainment, etc.) has become customary and even second nature to many. Thus might high numbers of legislators be willing to vote in favor of bills that would allow for the activity (within the highly circumscribed parameters of government-imposed licensing and regulation, of course).

But are we at a point where a would-be presidential candidate -- one who is legitimately positioned within one of the two major parties to be forwarded as their representative on a national scale -- might gamble his future on online gambling? I don’t think so.

No, if Christie was going to do something other than fold this hand again, he would’ve acted already.

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