There's no shortage of legal gambling in California.

You can wager on horse races at the state fair, six county fairs and six commercial tracks. All 13 venues accept bets on races at other tracks, including tracks outside the state.

There are more than 90 licensed cardrooms.

Charities are allowed to host poker, blackjack and baccarat games as fundraisers.

Indian tribes operate 58 casinos.

Finally, the state itself sponsors eight varities of lotto and also sells an array of scratch-off lottery tickets.

With all that gambling, is there any justification for maintaining a ban on Internet poker games? Yes. Indeed, there are plenty of good reasons.

But Indian tribes and their allies in Sacramento are pushing for the biggest expansion of gambling in state history. And after five years of squabbling, 13 politically active tribes, including the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, have settled their differences, greatly improving the odds of an online poker bill passing this year.

"This journey has been long and difficult," the tribes said in a letter to the chairmen of the Senate and Assembly committees with jurisdiction over gambling, "but the challenges posed by the Internet demand that we harness rather than cede the technology of the future for California and for our tribal communities."

Translation: The tribes see a lucrative new market, and they don't want competition from offshore companies that pioneered online gambling.

California tribes are among the biggest donors to political campaigns and, not coincidentally, lawmakers tend to be very responsive to the tribes.

However, this game may not be over.

The Morongo Band of Mission Indians, one of the most politically active tribes, is aligned with card rooms and one of the offshore companies in actively opposing the deal reached by the other tribes. Gambling opponents also have some powerful, if surprising allies, including casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, a former supporter of online poker.

As this high-stakes political battle unfolds, we trust that legislators will remember that:

• It's difficult, if not impossible, to ensure that minors aren't gambling online. In announcing his opposition, Brown noted that some online poker companies market themselves using cartoons and comic book heroes that appeal to juveniles.

• California already has 589,000 adult problem gamblers, according to a 2006 study commissioned by then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Using data developed in Oregon, the same study estimated that California had 436,000 underage problem gamblers.

• Tax windfalls promised in other states — not to mention in California with the lottery and tribal casinos — haven't materialized. In New Jersey, for example, Gov. Chris Christie predicted the state would collect $200 million this year. The actual take is shaping up to be something less than $35 million.

The best argument for online poker is that as many as 1.5 million California residents already are playing, despite legal prohibitions and without consumer protections. But we're not convinced their risks are reason enough to provide more opportunities for more people to gamble.

'You just gotta get out of here:' Read the Mercury News story here


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