April 24, 2011

WHEN THE IDEA of allowing online gambling first came before the D.C. Council, Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi cautioned that there was no consensus on whether the proposal was permissible under federal law. Peter J. Nickles, then attorney general, followed up with his own concerns about the “very real legal and law-related technological obstacles.” No matter; the council, with no public comment and little scrutiny, blithely approved plans to make the city the first in the nation to legalize and promote online poker and other games. It would be prudent of the District to take another look at this issue to determine if it’s really a gamble worth taking.

The legislation attracted very little attention when it was enacted in December. Tucked inside the District’s supplemental budget at the initiative of council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), the proposal bypassed committee review and any public hearings. Even then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who was not consulted, was caught by surprise. Only now are the District’s plans getting notice, the result of the attention focused on the city’s budget by the recent negotiations to avert a federal shutdown. “Not sure” is what Mr. Brown told us when we asked why the normal route of getting legislation approved wasn’t followed. Vincent C. Gray, council chairman at the time and now mayor, approved its inclusion in the supplemental budget. “Innovative” is how Mr. Gray recently described to Post reporters a plan that is projected to generate $13.1 million in revenue for the city between fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2014.

Interest in online gaming, which would be run by the D.C. Lottery and limited to adults in the District, is cropping up across the country. It’s the result of cash-strapped states wanting to tap into the billions of dollars of revenue already being generated by unregulated Internet gambling. But where the District leaped, other states have hesitated because of social policy concerns inherent in any expansion of gambling, as well as worries about passing legal muster. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, by which Congress sought to restrict the burgeoning online gambling sector by going after its payment mechanisms, exempts activity that occurs exclusively in one state. But the ambiguity in federal law is such that two states, Illinois and New York, have requested clarification, still pending, from the Justice Department. The District sought no such clarification, nor is it clear whether the city will be able to clear the technical hurdles, exaggerated by its unique geography, of restricting participation to those within the city’s borders.

Other issues need to be addressed. Will neighborhoods have a say in the location of planned hot spots? What minimum age will define an adult able to gamble? Does this expansion of gambling have implications for law enforcement? Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the finance and revenue committee, acknowledged to us there should have been a fuller airing of the plan, so we are pleased he plans to hold — better late than never — a public roundtable.