FINALLY, ATTENTION is focused on plans to make the District the first place in the nation to legalize online gambling. And guess what? Some officials are thinking the city may have bitten off more than it could chew. We hope they take advantage of a delay in launching the games to fully examine whether the benefits outweigh the pitfalls of this questionable endeavor.
The launch by the D.C. Lottery of cash betting on intranet Texas hold ’em, blackjack and bingo set for September has been pushed back. “It could be October; it could be November; it could be next year,” said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) who, largely in response to questions we have raised about the gambling initiative and the strange way it became law, held a hearing last month.
Public hearings are normally held before legislation is enacted, but there was no public comment and scarce scrutiny of this issue. Instead, council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) worked for months behind the scenes on the proposal and, spurning advice to introduce a bill that could be fully vetted, persuaded then-council chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) to slip language into the city’s voluminous supplemental budget, which was passed in December.
Concern about how the measure was approved is aggravated by questions surrounding Mr. Brown’s employment with a firm with an interest in the issue while he was engineering its passage. Mr. Brown maintains his work for Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, an international law firm with an active gaming practice, posed no conflict because no company represented by the firm, which he has since left, had direct interests in the D.C. legislation. We have argued that there was possible value to firms in the gambling business if the District set a precedent that other jurisdictions might follow. Mr. Brown, who is not a lawyer, declines to detail the work he did as senior public policy adviser, for which the firm paid him some $240,000 in 2010.
It’s far from clear that the city’s gain from online gaming would be worth the effort, the legal risk and other possible downsides. Estimates by Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi’s office, admittedly conservative, place revenue at $13 million to $14 million through fiscal year 2014. The District’s small size and unique geography work against it, with some gambling analysts doubting that many players would switch from the highly developed and competitive sites of foreign operators. Consider also the technical issues that must be surmounted. The District would have to figure out a way to limit play to those within the District, while walling off the federal enclave, where the lottery is barred by law from operating. Officials say the system being developed has those capabilities.
Lottery officials will conduct a citywide listening tour to allow residents and civic associations to weigh in on proposed gaming locations. More fundamental is the question of whether the District wants to go down a path that so far every state has shunned — after, unlike Washington, actually taking the time to examine the pluses and minuses.