Shawn Fluharty Waves Off Criticism of West Virginia Data Sharing Bill, Says Original Spirit is Intact

On March 9, West Virginia became the first state to pass a law requiring gambling operators to share data with academics for research purposes. The version of the bill that made it through the Senate earlier this month bears some significant changes from the original version introduced by House Speaker Roger Hanshaw and Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty.

The bill got a new name to reflect the spirit of the changes. The Responsible Gaming and Research Act is now the Responsible Gaming and Research and Industry Development Act. 

The changes alarmed a few people, including representatives of First Choice Services, the company tasked with overseeing the national gambling helpline’s operations in the state. The perception is that what was a bill about reducing gambling harm has become one designed to benefit the industry.

Brianne Doura Schawohl, a prominent commentator on responsible gaming issues, called the changes “shameful” in a post on X (formerly Twitter).

Speaking to Bonus, Fluharty dismissed the idea that the bill had shifted away from its original objectives. The plan, he said, was to turn West Virginia University (WVU) into “UNLV 2.0”—referring to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a well-known hub for industry talent development as well as responsible gaming research.

According to Fluharty, the bill’s evolution was natural and expected, and the inclusion of industry development doesn’t represent a departure from the original vision. He said:

This wasn’t just going to be a bill designed for research only. We knew it was going to progress and expand and we wanted to make sure West Virginia University was at the table when all this was taking place. And that’s what happened. The industry came in, West Virginia University came in. Everybody sat down, we discussed what it should look like, and that’s how we got it done.

What Changed in the WV Data Bill Before Passing?

One of the bill’s primary functions is to mandate an annual report on the impact expanded gambling has had on the state. In the original version, this task would have fallen to the Department of Human Services (DHS) in coordination with the State Lottery Commission (SLC). The new version cuts the DHS out of the process, leaving that task entirely to the SLC, which is the state’s gambling regulator.

Some critics have seen the removal of the DHS as troubling. The DHS oversees programs to treat gambling addiction in the state.

Meanwhile, the industry now gets something in return for its data. The new bill requires West Virginia University (WVU), the primary recipient of the data, to establish a program “to foster innovation in gaming technology development and prepare students for careers in racing, gaming, gaming operations, hospitality management, guest relations, entertainment, and other amenities.”

First Choice Services, representing 1-800-GAMBLER in the state, criticized the changes and petitioned lawmakers unsuccessfully to reject them. In a message shared on X and other channels, it wrote:

As the title change implies, the substitute bill is no longer about seeking to analyze the level of problem gambling but is now about further enticing people to gamble […] We ask that you vote against this bill, which as it is currently written, will not prevent more West Virginians from experiencing problem gambling.

Fluharty told Bonus that First Choice had contacted him with a similar appeal, urging him to try again next year rather than accept the compromise. However, he said the new bill still contains everything he intended and that the additions are a normal part of the lawmaking process.

Fluharty: RG Research and Industry Development Can Coexist

It’s true that with its new phrasing, the new bill could be read as emphasizing the industry development aspect. However, Fluharty stressed to Bonus that WVU researchers can and will use the data for responsible gaming research as originally intended.

He downplayed the idea that there’s any conflict inherent in having the same institution doing both:

When I graduated from law school, I graduated with people who were going to be judges, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, civil litigators, and corporate defense attorneys. All those individuals graduated from the same school but play in different places on the field.

I don’t see why we look at this in the gambling industry as if you can only do one thing. You can only do gambling research, or you can only work in the industry. I think that’s a flawed approach and I’m trying to break down those barriers.

I think if we’re going to move forward in the gambling industry, in 2024 and beyond, the education sector should play a major role in that.

With the House having accepted the changes, the new law will come into effect on June 7.

Data-Sharing Provisions Could Help Gambling Expansion

Gambling opponents might hope that findings from the data will help curb the aggressive expansion of legal gambling in the US. However, Fluharty’s expectation is quite the opposite.

He brought the bill up while speaking at iGaming NEXT in New York City earlier this month, shortly before its passage. In doing so, he made another observation about the bill that might rankle its critics. He said that including similar provisions in new online gambling laws could win support from the higher education lobby for those expansion efforts.

That, in turn, could help sell such laws to legislators who are cynical about the industry’s self-advocacy. As he put it to the audience:

If you have the education lobby on your side, it’s a lot harder for lawmakers to go against that than the gambling lobby.

Fluharty makes no bones about the fact that he’d like to see online gambling legalized in as many states as possible. As well as representing West Virginia voters in the state legislature, he’s President of the National Council of Legislators for Gaming States (NCLGS) and the Head of Government Affairs for Play’n GO, an online casino content provider.

NCLGS is currently working on model iGaming legislation that it will unveil at its summer meeting in Pittsburgh. Fluharty previously told Bonus that the topic of data-sharing “could come up” in those discussions.

About the Author

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon is an online gambling industry analyst with nearly ten years of experience. He currently serves as Casino News Managing Editor for Bonus.com, part of the Catena Media Network. Other gambling news sites he has contributed to include PlayUSA and Online Poker Report, and his writing has been cited in The Atlantic.
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