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Utah Officials Say Internet Gambling Laws Should Remain a State's Decision

by Hillary LaClair, Senior Editor
December 28, 2008

                 In response to current negotiations between U.S. trade representatives and the World Trade Organization, Utah officials are calling for Congress to uphold the rights of individual states to form their own online gambling laws.  Should this power remain with state legislatives, Utah would maintain a zero tolerance policy in terms of online casinos.

                “Talks for the next [WTO] round are in limbo,” says Republican Representative Sheryl Allen, an advocate for states’ rights. “It’s very important that states give input and get involved before agreements get signed by 153 countries.”

                Allen heads House Joint Resolution 1, a proposition that would leave online casino gambling laws a decision of each U.S. state. As such, internet gambling would remain a criminal offense in the state of Utah.

Gambling in any form is illegal in this state, including national lottery tickets. As a result, state residents travel to bordering states, Idaho and Nevada, to purchase lottery tickets or gamble in a casino. Utah and Hawaii are the only U.S. states that have taken such a strict approach to gambling.

                Utah legislators are concerned that the negotiations may lead to legalized internet casino gambling in the U.S., and therefore negate state regulations. Utah residents would have the ability to access gambling websites from their home computer, rather than traveling to another state, and this would be within their legal rights.

                Allen claims that her concern with the legalization of internet gambling lies with the infringement of states’ rights, however, rather than with the idea of gambling online. “Many see gambling as a moral issue,” she said. “But I’m looking at it as a states’ rights issue.”

                Peter Riggs, director of Forum and Democracy and Trade, added, “States on all sides of these issues were correct to see it as a states’ issue. Some had public morals concerns, others revenue concerns.”

                According to the Salt Lake City Tribune, the United States in fact legalized internet gambling with the World Trade Organization, when the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) was signed in 1994. The WTO claims that in this agreement, online casino gambling falls under the category of “other recreational services.”

                Since the signing of the GATS, however, the United States passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, when it was strategically pinned to the SAFE Port Act. With complete disregard for the WTO treaty, the U.S. criminalized all forms of internet gambling – with the exception of fantasy sports, online lotteries and horse racing.

                The U.S.’ stance on internet gambling has resulted in numerous international trade disputes. Antigua and Barbuda have been involved in litigation against the U.S., with WTO arbitration, for nearly four years. Although their attempts to lift the ban failed, both governments are seeking to violate U.S. intellectual-property law until a resolution is had.

                Utah legislators have fought for the rights of their state for the same four years. In 2005, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, with the aid of 28 other states, demanded that U.S. trade representatives fight for states’ rights.

                “Antigua has no business trying to write Utah’s gambling laws,” Shurtleff said.