Texans try their luck again on poker laws

Posted Tuesday, Apr. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Gambling bills in Texas

HB109/SB55: Letting Texans vote on whether to legalize or prohibit the operation of eight-liners in Texas.

HB292: Authorizing and regulating poker at facilities such as bingo halls. This is the Poker Gaming Act of 2013.

HB2098: Authorizing and regulating social poker establishments and the duties of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. This is the Social Poker Gaming Act of 2013.

HB3529: Regulating certain online poker facilities under federal law.

H Joint Res 47: Proposing a constitutional amendment creating a state gambling commission and allowing casino gambling on some coastal barrier and dredge-spoil islands, as well as in cities with populations larger than 675,000.

H Joint Res 141: Proposing a constitutional amendment to authorize online poker regulated under federal law.

S Joint Res 6: Proposing a constitutional amendment to create a gambling commission and authorize casino games and slot machines. They would be run by a limited number of licensed operators and Indian tribes. The bill would allow the commission to issue eight licenses to operate slot "establishments" at existing pari-mutuel horse or greyhound tracks; six licenses to build casino-anchored destinations in urban areas; and two licenses to build casinos on islands in the Gulf of Mexico. A tribe recognized by the U.S. government could operate slot machines and casinos on Indian land.

S Joint Res 43: Proposing a constitutional amendment to authorize online poker regulated under federal law.

S Joint Res 64: Proposing a constitutional amendment creating the Texas Gaming Commission and authorizing and regulating casino games and slot machines run by a limited number of licensed operators and certain tribes.

SB1103: Regulating certain online poker facilities under federal law.

Online: www.capitol.state.tx.us

Source: Texas Legislature

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Poker just might become a whole new game in Texas.

As state lawmakers work on issues ranging from balancing the budget to banning texting while driving, they are also considering measures to give people more leeway to play poker with legal wagering in Texas -- online, at bingo halls or at special clubs.

"We make criminals out of poker players, and we don't have to," said Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, who is among those who have filed poker-related bills.

"The rest of the country is catching up to this idea. I hope Texas will follow suit."

The bills include the Social Poker Gaming Act of 2013, the Poker Gaming Act of 2013 and an effort to permit online poker.

Supporters say poker is primarily a game of skill, not luck, and should be legal even if casinos, with games of chance, are not.

"It is time to bring this game out of the shadows and back into the light as the great pastime Americans have enjoyed for nearly two centuries," said Matt Allen, director of the Poker Players Alliance of Texas.

Friendly poker games, where the pot goes to the players, are already legal in Texas.

But games in which the house gets a percentage -- including help covering the costs of food or utilities -- are illegal.

While it's possible to play poker online for money, those websites are based in other countries and are not subject to U.S. laws. Legalizing online poker would allow winnings to be taxed and the games to be regulated to ensure fairness.

Opponents say it doesn't make sense to legalize poker in Texas.

"We don't think it's a good idea," said Rob Kohler, a consultant with the Christian Life Commission, part of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. "We don't think it's smart business for the state to commercialize poker.

"We don't think it's a good way to raise funds for the state."

Either way, political observers say, the bills that deal only with poker will take a back seat to broader legislation to legalize casinos.

"In the event that [casino legislation] is unable to overcome the resistance to gambling within certain sectors of the GOP and there remains sufficient time remaining before the end of the regular session on May 27, then it is possible that one of the poker bills might have a chance of passage this session," said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

Shuffle up and deal

Rodriguez filed the Poker Gaming Act of 2013, which would allow poker tables at bingo halls, licensed horse and dog tracks, and American Indian tribal lands.

It would allow "live-dealt" poker, not video or Internet poker.

Players would have to be at least 21, and establishments could not offer free drinks to players. The Texas Lottery Commission would oversee rules and enforcement, determining the number of tables at each location and licensing manufacturers, dealers and operators.

"I've seen poker bills come before the Legislature before, and I get asked about poker a lot when I'm talking to constituents," Rodriguez said. "I tried to come up with a plan that would both have a positive economic impact on the state but not expand the footprint of gambling."

In the bill, he states that legalizing and regulating poker can "benefit the general welfare" of Texans by "enhancing investment, development and tourism in this state."

More than that, it could generate money to help the homeless.

The bill creates an 18 percent tax to be paid from gross receipts at facilities that allow poker. The tax would be 16 percent at racetracks, with an additional 2 percent going toward a purse fund for the horse industry.

Licensed operators could charge a "collection fee" on each poker hand played, not to exceed 10 percent of the pot, capped at $4.

Proceeds for the poor

Taxes paid to the state would go toward the oversight of the program, and the surplus would go to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

Communities and nonprofit organizations would receive grants to provide shelter for the homeless, help them find permanent housing, and offer them medical and psychological counseling.

"This seemed like a reasonable approach to bring Texas hold'em back to Texas in a regulated and safe manner," Rodriguez said.

At the same time, Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, has filed the Social Poker Gaming Act of 2013, intended to create "social poker" clubs -- places that operate a "private food and beverage club" and allow "poker services."

Registered members could play poker for money, but the bill would not allow video poker or casino gambling. The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation would oversee the process, and any establishment would have to be licensed.

The Poker Players Alliance of Texas is urging supporters of poker measures to send a form letter to their lawmakers.

"All of these bills address our state's outdated laws when it comes to poker," the letter states. "They deal with the reality that many Texans play poker in a variety of forms and venues, but they do so without any regulation or oversight. These bills will regulate poker in the state and ensure the safety and integrity of the games."

Log on and play

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, are trying to make it legal to play online poker in Texas if federal law ever allows it.

They filed measures proposing a constitutional amendment to put the issue before Texans and laying out the framework for how the Texas Lottery Commission would "promptly" license online poker rooms if a federal law is passed.

This comes as U.S. Rep. Joe Barton is ready to renew his years-long effort to legalize online poker.

Barton has long maintained that poker is a measure of skill, not luck, and says a federal change would legalize and regulate the online poker industry and create tax dollars for the government.

"I continue to be supportive of the Americans who play poker online," said Barton, R-Ennis, whose district includes parts of Arlington. "They deserve to have a legal, regulated system that makes sure everyone is playing in an honest, fair structure, so I plan to reintroduce an online poker bill sometime in this Congress."

Barton said he will monitor poker legislation pending in Texas. But he said it's important to have federal legislation in place so all states would follow the same rules.

"Without federal guidelines, I'm afraid we could end up with dozens of different systems, which could leave open loopholes and lead to fraud," Barton said.

"I believe that ultimately there should be a national standard that accomplishes the goal of protecting the integrity of the game and the rights of those who play it."

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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