Last December, the United States Justice Department stated that the Wire Act of 1961 applies only to sports betting – a reversal of the previously held position that the law applied to all types of online gambling. This opened the door for numerous state legislatures to begin considering legalizing online gambling as a means to drum up much needed tax revenue. But, in Utah, a state that has never allowed gambling of any kind, the statements of the DOJ seemed only to motivate lawmakers to take steps to ensure that online gambling would remain illegal in their state forever.
In late January, Rep. Stephen Sandstrom introduced an anti-online gambling bill dubbed HB 108. Included in the bill was language that stated Utah would opt out of any federal law legalizing online gambling. This was particularly significant as there have been ongoing efforts by some to have a federal bill passed that would legalize online poker.
The bill states, “If any federal law is enacted that authorizes Internet gambling in the states and that federal law provides that individual states may opt out of Internet gambling, this state shall opt out of Internet gambling in the manner provided by federal law and within the time frame provided by that law.”
In early March, HB 108 passed through Utah’s state legislature despite the lobbying efforts of groups like the Poker Players Alliance – a nonprofit aimed at establishing and protecting poker players’ rights. This week, the bill officially became law when Gov. Gary Herbert signed it.
In addition to preemptively opting out of any future federal online poker program, the law also states that playing online poker is now a misdemeanor in the state of Utah.
The fact that the bill became law did not surprise John Pappas, the executive director of Poker Players Alliance. Though his organization chose to fight the bill as best they could, they knew the uphill battle they faced due to the state’s track record with gambling.
Other than Utah, there is only one state in the U.S. where it has never been legal to gamble in any way. The other state is Hawaii, though they seem to be more willing to consider a new approach when it comes to the Internet. A bill that would legalize online gambling in Hawaii recently stalled in the state’s legislature, but proponents of the bill suggest it will be re-introduced when the time is right.
Efforts to legalize online gambling in other states are being met with greater success, though Pappas wants to be sure that Utah’s new law doesn’t begin to influence the minds of legislators elsewhere.
“We’re staying vigilant on that,” remarked Pappas. “It will be interesting to see if other states follow this lead, but I think the PPA will be better suited to fight this in other states, because other states have gaming to begin with. Utah is a state where gambling is a sin.”
Illinois, on Sunday, will become the first state to offer residents the choice to purchase lottery tickets over the Internet. This of course isn’t as significant as it would be if they had legalized online poker, but it certainly indicates a direction that things may be headed in regarding online gambling in that state.
Only time will tell what effects Utah’s anti-online gambling law will have, if any, on the national discussion that is taking place on the benefits and downsides of legalization. But when looking at the over-all landscape of this debate, the safer bet seems to be that Utah’s law will not begin a trend with other states. In fact, the clamoring for legalization in some states is only growing louder by the day.