HELENA - Adding blackjack to the list of approved gambling in Montana would be a negative change that’s not worth the additional money it would bring in for the state.
That’s what opponents to a bill that would legalize live and video blackjack told a legislative committee Wednesday. House Bill 578 is carried by Rep. Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale.
The Legislature has shot down legalizing blackjack before, including the notable “21 in ’91” campaign in 1991 and another effort in 2011. Legal live games in Montana include poker, raffles, bingo, keno, panguingue and shake-a-day. The state also allows video line gambling machines. These are non-banking games, meaning players bet against and settle with each other as opposed to the house.
Galt told the House Taxation Committee, which took no action on the bill Wednesday, that blackjack would bring in money to help boost a state budget that has seen revenues drop amid a decline in the natural resource extraction industry.
The bill would charge $500 permit fees for tables, $200 licensing fees for dealers and a 5 percent tax on the gross income from blackjack tables. Money generated would go into the general fund for two years and then be divided among two special gambling accounts. The bet limit would be $200 and the maximum payout would be $800. There would be a three-table limit for establishments.
"This would be a Montana solution to some of the problems we have in our budget right now," Galt said. "It's a social game. There's all ages, every demographic plays this, because all you have to do is add up to 21."
No one spoke in support of the bill.
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Attorney General Tim Fox’s Department of Justice, which includes the state's Gambling Control Division, does not support the bill. Angela Nunn, the administrator of the division, said the amount of money generated by the bill wouldn’t be enough for her employees to adequately implement rules to govern blackjack and monitor games once they’re up and running.
Nunn also said Fox was opposed to the expansion of gambling around the state because the risk of increasing the numbers and severity of problem gamblers.
Representatives of the Montana Tavern Association and gambling license holders who run poker games also spoke against the bill, saying it would require a large amount of additional staff such as multiple dealers and pit bosses to run games well.
“It is our understanding as the ones who are in the business and who would deal with this is that blackjack is a very easy game to cheat on, both the players and the dealers,” said Jim Johnson, a gambling license holder in Red Lodge and president of the Montana Tavern Association. “We think that would open the door for all kinds of problems we as tavern owners really don't want to have to deal with.”
None of the association's member he has spoken to would want to add gambling, Johnson added.
Brand Longcake, executive director of the Montana Council on Problem Gambling, said games like blackjack can create a frenzy and excitement.
“Although it would generate additional revenue, it would also generate additional societal and economic costs. Expansion will increase the number of problem gamblers, especially in those communities that choose to add blackjack.”