A bill that would direct the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission to study how the state’s casinos might run on-line poker games has cleared a key senate committee.

A separate committee had voted in March to allow the casinos to enter into the on-line poker business, but the Senate Ways and Means Committee has scaled back the proposal to a mere study.  Senator Brad Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale, noted the committee room was packed with lobbyists for the gambling industry.

“Seventy-three percent of Iowans said that they don’t want internet gambling and we’ve got an opportunity here to slam the door on this, but no, we’re going to keep this thing alive,” Zaun said. “And I think probably everybody around this table recognizes that there’s problems with this bill right now.” 

Zaun was among the six committee members who voted against the bill.  Nine voted for it, but few expressed enthusiasm for the measure.  Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, voted for the legislation despite his reservations about having state regulators be the ones who conduct the study of internet gambling at the very casinos those regulators oversee. 

“I would say I’m less than satisfied with the information I’ve been given to date,” McCoy said, “and I will continue working on this as we move forward.”

Other senators on the Ways and Means Committee expressed strong objections to the part of the bill which would remove the requirement that voters in a county with a casino vote periodically on referendums to allow gambling in their area.  Senator Roby Smith, a Republican from Davenport, is adamantly opposed to the “reverse” referendum process that would be required.

“Imagine if we got elected and then we changed the rules and we said, ‘If we’re elected to two consecutive terms as state senator..,.we are up here forever until the people back home went out and got 7500 signatures just to have the right to vote us out of office,'” Smith said. “If we pulled that, how do you think the people back home would feel?”

Smith noted he was only required to collect 100 signatures to put his name on the ballot as a candidate for the state senate, but opponents of a casino would have to collect 7500 signatures to get a gambling referendum scheduled in their county. 

Senator Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo, suggested the bill is far from its final form. “I just understand your concerns,” Dotzler told the senators on the Ways and Means Committee. “…It’s a conversation that needs to be continued.”

The bill is now eligible for debate in the full Senate.  

Listen to today’s WMMeeting (MP3 of Senate Ways & Means Committee meeting runs 34 minutes).