Tuesday, November 22, 2011

D.C. iGaming Community Meeting in Ward Six (or, "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Give Into my Hatred of Politics")

A few of you asked me last week why I hate politics so much. Well, allow me to step away from the usual nonpolitical fare on this blog give you a very longwinded answer to a very simple question.

Last night, I participated in local democracy by attending a community meeting in D.C.'s Ward 6 (where I live) to discuss iGaming in the District.

For those who are unfamiliar with local politics in our nation's capital, you may not be aware that the D.C. Council passed its 2011 budget in December 2010 and included a provision allowing online gambling.  The "iGaming" structure falls under the purview of the D.C. Lottery and would produce revenue in a similar manner as powerball tickets or scratch-off cards---money spent on online games like blackjack would go back to the District, while the District would take a percentage rake on skill games like poker. 

Essentially, the structure of iGaming in D.C. will look almost identical to existing online casinos like Bodog.com, except it will be legal, regulated, and taxable.  Perhaps most importantly to citizens like myself, who had money frozen when the government seized offshore online poker websites like FullTilt.com, iGaming will be safe, protected, and based in the District. It's legal and it's been approved by Congress. (Note: the seizure of the offshore online poker sites was related to financial crimes committed by its officers, and not for reasons related to the legality of poker.)

Because iGaming is online and trackable, the D.C. lottery is able to place limits on the amount of money people can wager.  Players are limited to adding $250 per week to their accounts, although there is not a limit on how much money they can win, nor is there a minimum deposit (i.e., players can put in anywhere from $1 all the way up to $250 a week).  [Previous sentence edited slightly for clarity.]  The iGaming software will even have a mechanism that can detect when a player consistently loses their money, and how fast they lose it, and will be able to intervene with potential problem gamblers.

The meeting was filled with supporters of online poker.
  • A deaf woman spoke about how dificult it is to play poker in live casinos, because she can't hear the players around her and she isn't allowed to speak in ASL for fear that she's cheating in an unknown language. Online, she said, "everyone communicates the same way, by typing."
  • Many people spoke about how much money they spend traveling to play at casinos in Atlantic City, Charlestown, and Delaware when they would much rather spend that same money playing in the comfort of their own home and knowing that their money would be going to the District in which they live.
  • One woman talked about D.C.'s illustrious history of poker-playing. Did you know that Truman's catchphrase, "The Buck Stops Here" refers to the dealer button (aka "Buck") that moves around the table in a game of poker?
  • In my favorite speech of the night, a black pastor from Ward 5 spoke up in favor of online gaming in the district. He pointed out the racial politics of the lottery---that almost all lottery revenue comes from poorer, black wards and that almost all lottery revenue is spent in wealthier white wards. He pointed out that iGaming would even this out, since statistically the people who play online casino games are "a different kind of player"---middle-class folk. The increased revenue, he noted, could be spent on the wards that need it. He also gave a wake-up call to those fear-mongers who suggested that people would begin gambling in church on their iPhones saying incredulously, "Do you think I don't know what goes on in my church? Nobody's going to be doing that in my church." Amen to that. [Edit: I was sad, but not surprised, to see Councilman Wells completely misstate the minister's speech on his twitter account last night.]
The objections you might expect to hear about online poker did not materialize; there did not seem to be any moral concerns, and the D.C. lottery representative on site to explain the setup of the program explained the extensive security procedures in depth.

The best part about this whole iGaming program, in my opinion, is the fact that it will bring much-needed revenue into the city.  Councilman Brown, who introduced the iGaming provision, estimates that iGaming will start making $9 million a year in revenue after a three-year startup period.

Now, you may be wondering why we're holding community meetings if this budget (and the iGaming provision) has already been considered and debated in the D.C. Council, approved by the United States Congress, and passed by the council.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce the reason why politics drives me insane.  Meet the ANC.  From their website:

The Advisory Neighborhood Commissions consider a wide range of policies and programs affecting their neighborhoods, including traffic, parking, recreation, street improvements, liquor licenses, zoning, economic development, police protection, sanitation and trash collection, and the District's annual budget.

In each of these areas, the intent of the ANC legislation is to ensure input from an advisory board that is made up of the residents of the neighborhoods that are directly affected by government action. The ANCs are the body of government with the closest official ties to the people in a neighborhood.

Imagine that every annoying Student Government wannabe at your high school began trying to control how your high school principal ran the school.  That's the ANC.  Ask any local D.C. businessman, and I'm sure they will have many unkind words about the way in which the ANC inserts themselves in even the minutae of running a local business.

The ANC is an advisory board. They are not government officials.  Still, somehow, for some self-important and entitled reason, they've come to the conculsion that they should have been allowed to SAY MMOOARRR about this budget before it was passed.  They show up to all of these community meetings---all five of them, most of whom left the Ward 6 meeting immediately after they spoke their piece---and get angry about the "process" that they say was lacking.

Here are the most interesting things I learned from last night's Ward 6 Community Meeting, hosted by Councilman Tommy Wells (author of a measure to repeal iGaming):

Councilman Wells. Image from People's District.
  • None of the people in attendance were against online poker.  Tommy Wells himself pointed this out.  The only people who were opposed to iGaming were the five ANC people in the audience, and all of them were just angry that nobody cared to ask them for their opinion before passing the budget.  (I DO intend to use the word "angry," by the way.  One of these ANC guys actually interrupted a woman in the middle of her question and shouted, "That's a stupid question!"  I kid you not.  THESE are the people Tommy Wells is kowtowing to?)
  • The vast majority of people in the audience were excited about getting to play poker and other casino games online, and nobody seemed to mind the $250/week limit.
  • Tommy Wells knows that the District needs revenue. In fact, Wells mentioned at the meeting that he'd tried to raise taxes in order to generate more revenue for the District. The great thing about iGaming is that---unlike a traditional tax---it will raise this revenue for the district in a way that people are actually EXCITED about! And since you will need to be physically located in the District in order to play, it will also drive people into the District to spend money on local businesses.
The ANC complained about what they saw as a lack of process surrounding the way the budget was passed. In fact, the way they talk about it makes it seem as though someone slipped this provision into the budget in the black of night and the councilmembers were forced to approve the measure blindfolded and at gunpoint. Here's what I learned about the actual process concerns:
  • The iGaming provision, when added to the budget, was added IN HUGE BOLD TYPE. Nobody reviewing the budgetary changes could have missed it.
  • Councilmembers had weeks to review the budget in preparation for the council discussion on it.
  • Michael Brown, the proponent of the budget, appeared on television to discuss iGaming before councilmembers approved the budget.
  • Congress, as in the fracking UNITED STATES CONGRESS, received a marked-up version of the bill containing the iGaming provisions and approved it.

Councilman Brown. Image from Washington City Paper.

Perhaps the most personally offensive moment of the night for me came when Councilman Wells got up to speak about why he approved the iGaming budget.   [backtrack: yes, you heard that correctly. The man who is trying to get this provision repealed signed off on it himself.]  What did Wells have to say? 

Tommy Wells said he didn't really read the budget before he approved it.  

Um, what?  I beg your pardon? 

I kid you not, this politician stood up before a crowd of 60+ working people and told them that even though it's his JOB to read and understand provisions before he puts his name to them and makes them law, that he just kinda didn't care all that much about any of this and didn't read the BIG BOLD PRINT!!!1111!! adding iGaming to the D.C. Budget. 

Guys, I hate politics because stuff like this raises my blood pressure to an unhealthy level.   I'm just a first-year law firm associate with nowhere near the power and influence of even a dinky D.C. Councilman, and if I make the mistake of not reading something at work and still sign my name to it, I WILL GET FIRED.   So I don't make those mistakes, because it's my job.   And I'm careful and I care about doing a good job. And somehow Tommy Wells thinks he can get away with saying, "Well, I didn't really read it?"  

No.  Here's what happened:  he signed the budget.  Five obnoxious, question-interrupting people at the ANC got mad at him because their pride was hurt when they weren't consulted first, and Wells started backpedaling.  Simple as that.  Here's the thing, though.  These process concerns are a sideshow.

Tommy Wells himself admitted at the Ward 6 hearing that absolutely everything the ANC wants to influence from a process standpoint, including directing iGaming revenues, can be effectively accomplished without repealing the budget.

So why, I ask you, does Councilman Wells think it would be an efficient use of local resources to repeal a budget that has already been discussed in Council, passed by Council, and approved by Congress, only to hold discussions and add revenue-directing measures that can be added right now without repealing the budget?  Beats me.  But the issue sure isn't opposition to online poker---as Mr. Wells himself said, he didn't see anybody opposed.

It seems as though all of this comes down to Tommy Wells trying to appease an irrationally angry faction at the expense of countless D.C. residents who would benefit from that lottery revenue now.

For at least one resident of Mr. Well's ward, I hope he gets his act together and gets behind this measure, which---do I need to say it again?---he already approved.  iGaming in D.C. represents an important source of revenue and an exciting opportunity for players and residents.  It's already been passed, so let's stop wasting time and money on a measure that's already passed and implement this thing, for crying out loud.  I'm not sure if YOU could use $9 million a year, but I know the District sure could.

I'll even be a good sport---we can let the ANC guys bet the first dollar.

To read more about iGaming in D.C.: 
iGaming info from the D.C. Lottery 
D.C. Citizens for Online Poker --- Summary of the Ward Meetings 
Online Gambling: A Good Bet for D.C.?

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