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Iowa legislator proposes bill to expand current online gambling limits

BY BRENT GRIFFITHS | MARCH 07, 2013 5:00 AM

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Printers in Iowa City and across the country will soon be humming to life as they spit out countless copies of the NCAA Tournament brackets.

And as one of the biggest athletics events of the year nears, one member of the Iowa Legislature would like to expand the law so that fans can bet more money on brackets and include online fantasy sports.

“Our laws aren’t caught up to online gambling, and it kind of blew my mind it’s against the law to do that,” said Rep. Jake Highfill, R-Johnston, a former University of Iowa student and the author of the bill. “[People] say they play it all the time … and are shocked to find out that they’re breaking the law.”

Highfill said his goal is to help constituents such as the one who came forward and brought the problem to his attention. Highfill’s bill would push the betting limit to $500, provided participants do not have to pay an entrance fee. Currently, Iowa law only allows someone to win $50, which Highfill says leads to people unknowingly breaking the law, and this can be challenging to enforce.

“It’s kind of a silly thing it’s against the law,” he said. “I don’t believe the [current law] will honestly be enforced.”

Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, said while he believes Highfill’s bill has merit, he wants to ensure players are not losing too much money while gambling. However, he said he believes other pressures will lead to the bill not going through this session, including people who are worried about gambling becoming a personal problem.

“There’s bipartisan support for keeping the current gambling limits, he said. “I think those two obstacles will be difficult for him to overcome.”

An economic expert said he agrees with Highfill’s approach. John Solow, a UI associate professor of economics, said he believes people are always betting; however, it’s just not always referred to as gambling.

“I don’t see gambling on fantasy sports any different than the turn of a card or the pull of a roulette wheel or the one-armed bandit,” Solow said. “A NCAA March Madness pool or a game like fantasy football or fantasy baseball should be people’s own decision to make.”

In spite of the bill’s expansion of gambling limits, the law prohibiting gambling on school property  — including the UI — will stay in place.  Nevertheless, students support the bill and believe high stakes force participants to pay more attention to their respective fantasy teams.

“I think a lot of times fantasy sports is just a group of friends, but it’s still individualistic, because everyone is putting their money into it, and it’s more fun and almost a reward,” said UI senior Jeff Kingsley, who has played fantasy sports since he had access to an email address. “As opposed to [actually] gambling on sports or going to a casino, which I think is wildly different than just going in with a group of family friends or coworkers.”

Fantasy players also agree the $500 limit, while potentially difficult to reach for college students, is perfect in terms of allowing other players room to play.

“$500 is a good amount because it allows for the high rollers … to do as they please,” UI freshman John Talbot said. “Anything more and they would make too much money.”

Long after brackets have been crumpled in frustration, fantasy players will flock back to their various leagues as new seasons approach, which one expert says will bring with it small-scale gambling.

“From my experience, it’s a real commonplace practice to wager or enter a small little pool,” said Thomas Oates, a UI assistant professor of American studies. “Gambling is pretty widespread and widely accepted at least among sports fans, even though it’s technically illegal.”


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