Poker bill survives legislative test

A bill that would legalize Texas Hold'em tournaments cleared its first legislative hurdle.

It's one of the smaller gambling proposals lawmakers are likely to consider this session.

State Sen. Dave Kleis says his bill wouldn't expand gambling, it would simply make Texas Hold'em tournaments legal. Kleis' bill would legalize the poker games if there's no prize money involved. The St. Cloud Republican became interested in the issue after a St. Cloud bowling alley, the Granite Bowl, was raided last July for holding weekly Texas Hold'em tournaments.

"I was a little upset with the fact that it was raided and there was, in my opinion anyway, a waste of some resources for something that shouldn't be illegal. I didn't believe it was illegal," Kleis said.

The Stearns County Attorney found no clear violation of the state's gambling laws, and decided not to file charges against the Granite Bowl, which has since resumed its weekly tournaments. Kleis says his bill will make it clear that similar tournaments can take place across the state.

But DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar questioned whether the game is as innocent as Kleis claims.

"Texas Hold'em is almost at epidemic proportions at our colleges and universities right now. In my neighborhood in Willmar, I couldn't understand why all these cars were parked across the street all the time, and I found out that the senior high boys are over there after school, five nights a week, playing Texas Hold'em. My point in all of this: there is going to be some social consequence to the advancement of Texas Hold'em and other games of chance," Johnson said.

Kleis argued that his bill puts some limits on the game, and doesn't allow tournament prizes to exceed $200. His bill cleared a Senate gaming committee on a divided voice vote, and will likely be heard in a House committee next week.

But while Texas Hold'em may be a national phenomenon, poker isn't the gambling issue that will spark the biggest debate this session. That involves casinos. The Ghermezian family that controls the Mall of America wants to build a casino adjacent to the mall in Bloomington. And Gov. Pawlenty has proposed a new Twin Cities casino that would be operated jointly by the state and interested Indian tribes. He said on MPR's Midday program that the problem with the Ghermezian proposal is that Bloomington doesn't want a casino.

"And so what we've said is: 'we'll be respectful of communities, we're not going to force them to have something like this, if they don't want it, we'll go elsewhere.' There are other communities who are more than happy to host a facility. It won't be as big or exciting," he said.

Pawlenty says he supports efforts to require local approval before a state-run casino could be built. Two House bills would require voters in a community to approve a new casino in a local referendum. The House Gaming Division laid the bills over for possible inclusion in a larger gambling bill.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, says she'll sponsor the metro casino bill that the governor supports. It would likely benefit three northern tribes -- White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake -- that have been talking to the governor's office. She says the bill will face an uphill battle.

"Most of my colleagues are pretty anti-expansion of gambling, as am I, but I think the public... the polls have shown that the public is really in favor of expanded gambling. So we're kind of at odds with the public. And I think there are probably enough votes to do some kind of expansion, and I would like to see that it benefits Indian tribes., she said.

Pappas says details of the bill are still being worked out. She says it will likely be released in early March, and will not include a site for a new casino. Pawlenty is proposing that the tribes involved pay a one-time licensing fee of $200 million, and he has included the money in his budget proposal. Once the casino bill is released, it's likely to prompt a lot more debate than Texas Hold'em.

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