I don’t play poker and have no interest in the game, but I’m trying to understand why 39 members of the Oregon House — NOT including Albany’s Andy Olson — voted on Thursday to shut down and ban private poker clubs in Portland and perhaps other towns as well.
The vote was 39 for and only 16 (including Olson) against House Bill 2190, which now goes to the Senate. The bill would allow cities and counties to authorize “social games” only if they are operated and controlled by charitable, fraternal or religious organizations.
Albany does not allow private poker clubs. There is one just across the line in Millersburg, though, as readers have pointed out. But in Portland, the city has licensed about a dozen private poker rooms, and those operations evidently stick in the craw of gambling interests and Indian casinos in Washington state. On the witness list for a public hearing held by a House committee, there were lots of Oregon residents against the bill and three for it. Two of the three listed Washington addresses.
The Portland poker operations got in trouble with BOLI, the Oregon regulator of labor issues. The labor commissioner decided that the poker rooms could not have volunteer dealers earning tips only. The dealers had to be considered employees and had to be paid wages. According to Willamette Week, the owner of one prominent poker room closed the place in the face of that ruling and a month later shot himself dead.
But if the dealers are employees, then the operations themselves must be money-making enterprises, which seemingly makes them illegal under existing laws, which bar social game operators, including charities, from deriving any income from the games. But then again, if he sponsors can’t have income from a game, why would a charity put one on?
The law is confusing. No wonder some private clubs squeaked through the ambiguities and became popular with poker players. So now the House wants to shut them down.
During the House debate, nobody cited any abuses or problems associated with poker, at least none that affect the public. So what were they trying to fix or prevent? And maybe their vote, if the bill becomes law, will drive the poker crowd into underground clubs where state or local regulation holds no sway. Kind of like Prohibition, that seems like a pretty dumb move. (hh)
Rep. Andy Olson has gotten back to me with an explanation of his “no vote on this bill: “As it relates to HB 2190, I will focus on the Albany social gambling club, “Black Diamond,” since it will be impacted by this measure. (It’s in Millersburg, actually — ed.) I feel this bill reflects the out-of-control issue of social gambling in the Portland metro area vs. the rural communities. Since 1973, Oregon legalized social gambling. In 2008, counties and cities began issuing permits for poker clubs. These clubs are licensed legally, but some of the actions within the clubs are illegal. Part of this is due to archaic laws. For example, a club cannot act as bank — exchanging money for poker chips — but that is the entire process of how poker works. I do not want social gambling to go underground, but I also realize the laws need to be upgraded. I understand the intent behind HB 2190, but I do not feel it is the best path. That was why I was a NO vote.”