Politics & Government

Gambling rooms might get better deal

SACRAMENTO -- A year after he pushed a bill to eliminate wagering limits at card rooms, state Sen. Dean Florez is seeking to loosen gambling laws some more -- this time with legislation that would make it easier to add tables at small card rooms.

Florez, D-Shafter, says the change is needed to accommodate the growing popularity of Texas Hold'em.

The card game is often featured on televised poker tournaments, spurring many gamblers to try their hand at their local card room. It's so popular that many customers "have to wait several hours to play or leave to go home and perhaps play poker on the Internet, which is prohibited by federal law," Florez said in the bill analysis.

Senate Bill 152 has drawn less attention than last year's wagering limit measure, which anti-gambling groups strongly opposed. But activists are still worried that the bill would further erode a 12-year-old moratorium on card-room expansion.

The more gaming tables, the worse it is for gambling addicts, said Fred Jones, a lawyer for the California Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, an organization representing mostly churches.

"You can't give them the temptation because almost by definition they cannot handle it," he said. "This continuous slide into more and more gambling is just going to exacerbate that problem."

Thanks to the Texas Hold'em craze, card-room business is booming, even with competition from tribal casinos, which operate under fewer restrictions.

Statewide, card-room revenue grew each of the past four years, rising to $794 million last year, according to the state attorney general's Division of Gambling Control.

Still, smaller card rooms are having a hard time because they can't add tables, said Kermit Schayltz, president of the Golden State Gaming Association, which represents card rooms.

"You can't expand your business," said Schayltz, owner of a small card room in a Sacramento suburb. Yet "costs go up year after year after year. Give us a break."

SB 152 applies to card rooms that are prohibited by local ordinances from having more than 12 tables. About 60 of the state's 91 card rooms could be affected. In the central San Joaquin Valley, seven small card rooms would be covered by the bill -- in Tulare County, Madera, Porterville, Merced and Lemoore, according to the Division of Gambling Control.

The bill would allow cities and counties with card rooms to raise the limit on tables by 45% at each room -- allowing up to five more tables -- without voter approval. Today, local governments don't need a vote to expand gaming by 25% above the limit in place on Jan. 1, 1996.

SB 152 has passed the Senate and is expected to soon be taken up by the Assembly.

Fresno's Club One Casino would not be affected because it is allowed by the city to operate 49 gaming tables. The six-table 500 Club in Clovis would not be affected either because it can have up to 15 tables, according to the division.

A state law enacted in 1995 prohibits new card rooms and limits expansion at existing rooms. The moratorium has been extended several times and is now set to expire in 2015. But over the years, lawmakers have eased some of the restrictions.

Last year, for instance, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed a Florez bill that allows local governments to do away with wagering limits, freeing gamblers to bet as much as they want on Texas Hold'em, Pai Gao and other games. Fresno's City Council quickly took advantage of the law, removing the $200-per-bet Texas Hold'em limit at Club One.

Jones, the anti-gambling activist, accused the Legislature of bowing to pressure from card rooms.

"When they rub up against [gambling limits], they simply change the law for their own benefit," he said. "You get these well-heeled [gaming] interests paying off public officials."

Florez is chairman of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, which oversees gaming issues. Card rooms this year have contributed $12,000 to his campaign account. Last year, a group of Los Angeles-area card rooms made a $25,000 donation to an account that Florez uses to advocate against Los Angeles County dumping treated sewage in Kern County.

Florez said there is no connection between the donations and his bills. SB 152, he said, is a "reasonable" way to make room for larger poker crowds without allowing for a major gaming expansion.

"The best way to keep growth under control is to make these very small modest changes to the moratorium," he said. "If you go from 12 tables to 16 that's not really that big of a deal."

And, he added, local governments would still have to approve any increase.

Even so, Jones said the bill "undermines the ability of voters to be able to control the expansion of gambling in their communities."

A report last year by the California Research Bureau questioned the ability of locally elected officials to regulate card rooms because some small cities are dependent on card rooms as a major source of revenue -- mostly from locally negotiated taxes.

One of those small cities, Colma in the Bay Area, was behind last year's effort to do away with wagering limits. Card room revenue accounted for about a third of the 1,500-population town's budget, according to a 2005-06 budget projection.

Small towns in the Valley are less dependent on gaming revenue because none have larger card rooms. For instance, The Mint, a three-table card room in Porterville, pays the city $150 per table per quarter. That comes to $1,800 a year, a tiny fraction of the city's $21 million general fund budget.