Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said Monday that he supports legalizing Internet gambling in California but does not want any legislative action on the issue this year, extending the big-money debate into 2012.
Despite numerous hearings on the matter, Steinberg said in a letter to gambling interests and opponents, "significant, unresolved issues remain."
Card room operators, racetrack owners and tribal leaders disagree on which games should be made legal and who should be eligible to operate the gambling websites.
"We believe that well thought out, fair solutions to these differences can be reached, but not before the end of this legislative year on Sept. 9," says the letter by Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Roderick Wright, the Inglewood Democrat who chairs the Senate's Governmental Organization Committee that oversees gambling regulation.
Wright is the author of Senate Bill 45, one of two bills introduced late last year that would create a system for lawful online gambling within California borders. The other bill – Senate Bill 40 by Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana – is being pushed in a television and radio ad campaign paid for by the tribes and card rooms that sponsored the bill.
"I'm disappointed because time is of the essence," Correa said in response to Steinberg on Monday. "I was hoping to have California at the forefront of this movement."
The tribes and card rooms that sponsored SB 40, who collectively call themselves the California Online Poker Association, issued a statement Monday focusing on what they saw as the good news in Steinberg's letter:
"The fact that Senate Pro Tem Steinberg has declared his support for online poker and has called for a vote in January just goes to show that online poker is about ready to happen. After eight legislative hearings involving dozens of witnesses, it makes sense that online poker's time has come," the statement says.
Tribes that oppose SB 40 because they feel it doesn't give them enough opportunity to get into the Internet poker business said they were happy with Steinberg's decision to postpone action this year.
"This is the smart thing to do," said David Quintana, a lobbyist for the California Tribal Business Alliance.
"Moving something this big in the last minute, it's wrong."
Over the last year and a half, tribes, card rooms and racetracks have spent millions lobbying for and against Internet gambling. They've spent big on political contributions too, giving to campaigns, legal defense funds and charitable causes associated with Steinberg, Correa, Wright and other lawmakers.
In an interview Monday with The Bee, Steinberg said he likes the idea of legalizing Internet gambling because of its potential to bring hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes to state coffers, which he hoped could go toward health and education. But he said existing proposals aren't good enough.
"I don't think it's ready in the last two weeks of session," Steinberg said.