Key Senator’s Retirement Creates Urgency For NY Online Poker Legislation

The timeline for legalizing online poker, like New York online casino efforts, New York has seemingly gotten a little tighter.

Sen. John Bonacic has announced that he won’t seek re-election this fall, ending his tenure of two decades in the NY Senate. Bonacic’s name has appeared many times in these pages as a champion for gaming and gambling.

In a statement issued recently, he reflected on the decision from his home in Orange County:

The twenty years I have spent in the Senate have been rewarding both personally and professionally, despite the frustrations that all of us experience in any career.

Twenty years, though, is enough, and I look forward to spending quality time with my bride, Pat, and my children and grandchildren.

The news is noteworthy from a political standpoint, as Boncic is one of three Republican senators vacating office this year. The GOP is in danger of losing its only majority position in the legislature.

His departure, however, also carries large implications for online poker.

Bonacic integral to NY gaming

Bonacic, 75, has as much influence over NY gambling as anyone in the legislature. As the chair of the Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee, he is the primary gatekeeper for related legislation in the Senate.

Assemblyman Gary Pretlow is his equivalent in the lower chamber. Pretlow has only recently warmed to online poker, but Bonacic’s record bears long-standing support for gaming interests.

Most notably, he was instrumental in the upstate casino expansion package that passed in 2013. Although the Assembly bill was the one that became law, Bonacic moved a matching effort forward in his chamber. He remained in office long enough to see all four of those properties open their doors, including one in his own district.

His name is at the top of the NY daily fantasy sports bill that passed in 2016, too. Both DraftKings and FanDuel thanked Bonacic by name in their announcements following passage.

Naturally, some of those efforts are on his personal highlight reel. Bonacic mentioned the casino project in his press release:

Partnering with Governor Cuomo we finally brought casino gaming to Sullivan County. That is something that had been fought for decades and now it is creating jobs and raising property values.

Along the way, Bonacic served as a mediator between competing interests across the state. He oversees a complicated landscape, with tribes, horse racing tracks and commercial operators all involved in the gaming industry. Juggling those interests takes a deft hand, and Bonacic has proven himself a competent juggler.

His departure will leave quite a vacancy in Albany, then, both for the GOP and for those with a stake in gaming.

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Current gaming legislation must move

Bonacic’s current efforts aim to capitalize further on the casino expansion project he backed so heavily. One is a purpose-built online poker bill, carving it out for regulation as a game of skill. It would allow up to 11 online poker licenses.

There’s a sports betting bill in the works, too. Bonacic filed S 7900 earlier this year, which would permit both in-person and mobile sports betting. There are many proponents for sports betting in the legislature, but Bonacic is the peacemaker of the bunch. His bill reflects compromises with both operators and the professional sports leagues.

Sports betting appears poised to move forward, but online poker has been a tough sell.

The Senate has passed bills for two consecutive years, both by lopsided margins. That chamber would likely pass another one on-demand, but the hangup is in the Assembly. The lower chamber has been unable to get a bill across the finish line to date.

This may well be the year, though. Pretlow and his new colleague Assemblyman Clyde Vanel proclaim growing support for the Assembly bill, which follows Bonacic’s lead. If the Assembly can get the bill through in 2018, it should clear the Senate without trouble.

This may need to be the year, too. Although there is broad support in the Senate right now, some of that likely originates with Bonacic. Since his committee is one of the waypoints for online poker bills, his successor will have a similar level of influence.

Bonacic appears likely be succeeded by ranking member Sen. Jospeh Addabbo, and we don’t know nearly as much about his views on gaming. Although he does tend to vote with Bonacic in committee, NY online poker players should be rooting especially hard for legislation to pass under Bonacic’s watch.

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