Hawaii state senator offers bill to legalize online sports betting and poker

Haley Hintze
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Posted on: January 27, 2024 7:03 am EST

A new measure proposing the legalization of online poker and online sports betting in Hawaii has been introduced by State Senator Ronald D. Kouchi. Kouchi, who represents the islands of Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau at the northwest end of the Hawaiian Islands chain, filed Senate Bill 3376 on Wednesday.

SB3376 is not the first bill to propose the authorization of either online poker or online sports betting in Hawaii, but this effort comes with a twist, in that Hawaii’s tax revenue generated from any state-regulated online-gambling activity would be earmarked for a new wildfire relief fund to also be authorized by the bill.

In addition, the bill would create a new Hawaii Gaming Control Commission, a government entity that has never been needed to date because no form of gambling is currently legal under Hawaii law.

SB3376 proposes only one online site to be authorized

As with several other recent iGaming proposals in Hawaii in recent years, SB3376 would authorize only one entity to be licensed and granted an online monopoly. The limitation is a tacit acknowledgment of the uphill climb that SB3376 or any other iGaming bill faces on the way to becoming Hawaiian law.

Hawaii is one of only two US states, along with Utah, where no form of gambling is legal. However, the two states’ reasons diverge wildly. Utah’s gambling bans are religion-based, while in Hawaii, gambling has long been seen as a challenge to the state’s tourism industry and family-friendly image.

SB3376’s backers will argue, as others have in the past, that one of the bill’s primary purposes is to stop the flow of money spent by gamblers from going to other states or to unregulated offshore sites. The bill’s introductory section puts that selling point front and center:

SECTION 1. The legislature finds that tens of thousands of Hawaii residents illegally gamble using online sports and poker gambling websites or cell phone apps. These gambling websites often are operated offshore and are not subject to regulation or taxation by the State. Questions arise about the honesty and fairness of games offered to Hawaii residents, but neither federal nor state laws currently provide consumer protections for Hawaii residents who gamble online. Moreover, tens of millions of dollars generated from online gambling are being realized by offshore operators illegally serving Hawaii residents, but no benefits are provided to the State.

To protect Hawaii residents who gamble on the internet, and to capture revenues generated in Hawaii from online sports wagering and poker, it is in the best interest of the State and its citizens to regulate this existing activity by authorizing and implementing a secure, responsible, and legal system for online sports and poker wagering.

The purpose of this Act is to authorize one entity to offer online sports and poker wagering in Hawaii and use a portion of the revenues generated by the entity to support the victims of wildfires in the State.

SB3376 also calls for the online license to be granted only to state-based individuals or entities, requiring that an individual has lived in the state – or that a company has been domiciled there – for 15 years to be considered for the online license.

No assignment to committee as yet

Sen. Kouchi’s SB3376 is slow out of the gate, still awaiting its initial assignment to a committee. The bill follows two poker-including measures that were introduced in 2023 but received scant consideration. One of those was an online-poker measure filed by State Sens. Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran and Angus L.K. McKelvey, which was a ride-along to a lottery-legalization effort that went nowhere.

The other bill called for a single casino-resort venue to be constructed somewhere near Honolulu that would have included a live poker room and be open only to people who were staying at a nearby “transient housing facility” (meaning a hotel) while visiting the casino daily to gamble. The bill, sponsored by State Reps. John Mizuno and Daniel Holt, also generated little support.

SB3376 is at least the sixth pro-gambling bill introduced by state legislators this year, though it is the first to have a poker component. Two of the five bills are a repeat of the failed 2023 measure proposing a single live casino-resort near Honolulu, two others deal with legalizing a state lottery, and the fifth is a standalone measure proposing the requisite creation of the state gaming commission needed should any gambling-authorizing measure be signed into law.