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Gambling legislation stalls, may be dead

Not a single Judiciary Committee member voted to move bill

Posted: Friday, April 07, 2006

A Senate committee appears ready to flush a proposal to expand gambling in Alaska.

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The measure to allow public card rooms, in which people could bet on poker and other games, stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

No vote was taken by the committee. When Chairman Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, called for a motion to move the bill to its next committee, not a single member was willing to do so.

With about a month to go in the session, the bill appears set to die there.

"It may be dead, (but) if other members feel they want it brought to the table to be voted on, I'll listen to that," Seekins said afterward. "I don't think the votes are there to move it out of committee if there is a motion."

Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said he is not ready to bury the bill.

"There are powerful forces behind this bill so I would never say never," he said.

Ethan Billings, proprietor of Marlintini's Lounge in Juneau, supported the bill. The Mendenhall Valley bar hosts weekly Texas Hold 'em poker tournaments in which the players do not bet money, but play chips for prizes.

"I think it will come up again because I think there's a great amount of interest in it," Billings said.

Aside from giving Alaskans another choice of entertainment, card rooms would contribute revenue to the state, he added.

The bill by Rep. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, has been lobbied heavily by Anchorage furrier and semiprofessional poker player Perry Green.

Green, reached on his cell phone, said he doubted the bill would be resurrected.

"Probably there's such opposition to it for whatever reason, that they just won't even comment on it," Green said.

The proposal is to regulate card rooms in which people could gamble on games of poker, rummy, bridge, cribbage and pan. A municipality would be allowed one card room for every 30,000 people in its population, with communities less than 30,000 allowed one licensed card room each.

The bill, which drew some of the strongest debate last year on the House floor, passed that chamber 22-18. It has remained in the Senate Judiciary Committee since last May.

To receive a license for a card room, a person would have to pay $25,000 to apply, post a $500,000 bond and pay a $10,000 annual fee for each card table in the establishment.

The amount of money involved made it clear that only those with deep pockets would be able to get licenses, French said.

"It's sort of a philosophical issue: What direction do you want to take your city and your state? In general, I think it's not the right direction," French said.

Melissa Parker, head of the Alaska Poker Association, told the committee that Alaska needs to cash in on the nationwide poker boom. By establishing in-state poker establishments, Alaska players would be less inclined to go outside the state to play in tournaments, she said.

Parker acknowledged that the measure probably would not prevent Internet gambling or illegal poker games in the state.

In an effort to save the bill, Kott submitted to the committee a new version that made several changes, among them a requirement that a player set a loss limit for himself before he can buy chips.

Once that limit was set, it could not be changed for 24 hours and that person could not buy chips over that limit he has set for himself.

Other changes included setting a $4 maximum fee or rake that a licensed owner can collect from players each game, barring licenses from being transferred and putting more municipal control over the licensing of a card room and the hours of operation.

The committee did not debate the changes to the bill, or the answers to the members' questions provided by Kott aide Michael O'Hare. Green said he was disappointed there was no explanation for the committee's lack of action.

"They got all the answers and it was a flat no," Green said. "I would have thought that some people would say, 'I don't want it any price,' but there wasn't a comment about it."

Leaders from the bedroom community of Houston, 57 miles north of Anchorage in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, showed up at the committee hearing to urge members to pass the bill.

When they did not, Houston City Councilman Link Fannon said he was disappointed. Houston needed to grow its economy and it would never be an industrial town, he said.

"This was a really clean, attractive industry," he said.

Chip Wagoner, executive director of the Alaska Conference of Catholic Bishops, said his organization opposed the bill. Gambling in itself is not immoral, he said, but it can be addictive, and creating card rooms would just increase the chance of more people becoming addicted.

"I think this would just add to the problems we already have," he said.

• Juneau Empire reporter Andrew Petty contributed to this story.



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