Was the rush really needed on web poker?

Now that lawmakers have passed a web poker bill faster than pocket Aces can get cracked, they can move just as quickly to tax fast food and ban smokers from working in hospitals.

Surely, I jest.

But when lawmakers work as quickly as they did Thursday – both houses passed the measure within an hour – and the governor immediately signs the bill, should anyone stop to ponder: What’s the big rush?

I could wonder why they can't even muster a serious public discussion of the state's antiquated tax system in the 25 years I have covered the Legislatuire but they can fast-track (an "emergency measure!) a web poker bill. Really?

It’s easy to be cynical and conclude that only when the state’s most popular elected official and the state’s most potent industry want something does it happen this fast. And this blur of activity does drum home the point that despite all of the talk about diversification and Nevada's changing economy, this state is still about and for gaming. But let me suspend my cynicism – at least briefly.

I have always said that what is good for gaming is good for the state. Mostly. I’ve also said that the industry, or elements of it, regularly take advantage of that goodwill and try to use the Gang of 63, with much success, to garner special benefits.

So which is this web poker bill that lawmakers fell over themselves congratulating each other for passing on Thursday?

News releases filled my inbox, talking about keeping Nevada as the “gold standard” of gaming. And  I thought that was Macau.

But is that what the new web poker law, the first in the nation (finally, we are first in something and something so important!)  does? And do we REALLY know what happens next?

Here’s what we do know:

Amid much chatter that a federal bill was in the works, state lawmakers passed a measure last session that essentially allowed companies to line up and get ready to jump into cyberspace once Congress acted. They could get licensed; they just couldn’t do anything with it until the federal law passed. (That measure came after three lawmakers went on junkets paid for by online giant PokerStars, which wanted to corner the market, followed by the infamous Black Friday indictments. The bill was gutted by the industry to be Strip-friendly before it passed.)

Fast forward: There’s no federal bill, the industry generally is frustrated as other jurisdictions including New Jersey move forward, so a sense of urgency exists – or is created. Sandoval, brandishing the “gold standard” argument, exhorts lawmakers in his State of the State to race to pass the bill – see how they ran like Usain Bolt, governor! – because “other states are moving quickly on this issue.”

And Sandoval is right as states with larger populations are seeing lotteries morph into online gaming companies, and others, large and small, preparing to get into the business. The legislation shepherded by Assembly Majority Leader William Horne, unanimously passed by the Gang of 63 and signed by the governor today has the potential to bring a fortune into the state and to possibly change the fortunes of two public companies, MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment, saddled with billions in debt. It’s hard to argue with either of those developments, should they come to pass.

So I won’t.

But let’s not kid ourselves amid the bipartisan, bicameral, bi-branch display of onanism today in the capital (The governor said, "We have come together as Nevadans," as if he was presiding over some Lincolnesque legislative achievement.). There are many – many – unanswered questions about what happens next.

Here are some:

----How soon can compacts be signed, and who will oversee them? Sandoval and the Gang of 63 make it sound as if other states will be calling tonight to sign agreements with Nevada so the pool of players can become populous enough to make financial sense to companies. But that will take a long time – months, maybe years. And with other interests – hello, Indian tribes – not as thrilled with this fast-moving, fast-growing market and looking, perhaps, to throw a legal wrench into the deal, this may not happen quickly at all. An outstanding legal question is whether compacts would, as the Constitution seems to say, have to be approved by the federal government.

----Who will do business with Nevada? The frontier for online gaming may be vast, but the universe of states not willing to sign agreements with Nevada may be growing, too. California, which is the, ahem, gold standard of player pools, has indicated it may want a CA-only measure. Other states chafed at what they (rightly) believe was the Nevada industry’s attempts, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s help, to craft a federal measure friendly to his home state and hostile to others. They may not be so eager to do business with Nevada – our paltry population doesn’t help, either. That could be alleviated by doing business with international markets, but the Nevada bill (unlike New Jersey) does not allow such compacts. (Then again, if the New Jersey foreign experiment does not work, or is enjoined by the feds, maybe Nevada was smart.)

----What if a federal bill passes? Many believe that is unlikely, despite optimism this week from American Gaming Association chief Frank Fahrenkopf. What happens to compacts in the works or signed? What rules will the feds set? What will the revenue-sharing agreements be? No one knows.

There are other concerns, too, most notably raised by Las Vegas Sands Chairman Sheldon Adelson, about whether technology really can block minors and problem gamblers and whether on-line gaming cannibalizes land-based casinos. Most industry folks and many experts disagree with that view, although the gaming executives may be blinded by the green. So while web poker may be a great boon to the state and its most important industry, no one should be misled into thinking that the rush today to pass this bill matches the alacrity with which the new market comes to fruition.

As a former online player, I’d love for it to happen. But as an observer of politics, I can only suspend my cynicism for the length of a column when I see such a whooshing through of a bill and so many unanswered questions about its impact.