Iowa would be one of the first states in the nation to allow Internet poker under a bill approved Tuesday night by the Senate.
No legislators spoke against the overall bill, which passed by a bipartisan 29-20 vote.
Advocates said the bill would help give the state a cut of the estimated $30 million in Iowa gambling money now flowing overseas every year. The issue has been in play in recent legislative sessions.
“Anytime we deal with gaming issues, there are a lot of public policy considerations,” said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, who led the debate. “We did our homework. We worked together to come up with a solution that we believe addresses the problem.”
If the bill were to become law, Iowa casinos could launch the games, allowing people to establish accounts and deposit money to use for online wagering. Various tools would be in place to bar underage users or people outside Iowa from participating.
The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimated the games would bring as much as $15 million yearly to the state — $13.2 million from taxes and up to $1.8 million for educational and charitable giving required from license holders.
Efforts to use the money to help resolve an estimated $215 million annual shortfall in Iowa’s road improvement budgets failed after opponents expressed concerns that the idea had not been properly vetted through the typical legislative process.
“We have heard time and time again that this bill before us is not about the funding, it’s about protecting our consumers,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, who proposed using the money for roads. “So if it is not about the funding, why would we not direct it into an area that so desperately needs the funding?”
Groups like the Family Leader and the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition have previously voiced opposition to the proposal, saying it expands gambling.
“We look at this as a big step from having casino gambling in about 20 locations to however many households are in Iowa,” said Tom Chapman of the Iowa Catholic Conference. “We think legalizing it will expand it, and we think we’ll see more problems with families.”
Gov. Terry Branstad this week noted that he has previously indicated an openness to consider the issue.
“I want to protect the integrity of Iowans. I think that’s the most important thing. In terms of regulating and controlling gambling in this state, our top priority has been to keep it honest, clean, open, transparent and keep the criminal element out,” Branstad said.
Lawmakers in Nevada and the District of Columbia have approved Internet poker, although both are still creating rules and have not yet launched the games.
The bill now heads to the House for further consideration.