Over the past two weeks there were two committee hearings on bills to legalize home poker and other forms of private, not-for-profit social gaming in the state of Maryland. Last year’s version of the bill (H.B. 486) has been resubmitted as H.B. 305 by Delegate Kirill Reznik, and now also has a version in the Senate (S.B. 428) sponsored by Senator Nancy King. Both hearings were attended by PPA representatives and a few Maryland poker players testifying in support of legal home poker. As with last year, there was no one testifying against. I was personally unable to make the trip this year to either of the hearings, but audio and video clips of each hearing are made available (see links below), and I took a little time to summarize how things went.
S.B. 428 Hearing – February 5th in Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee
Audio: http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/webmga/frmcommittees.aspx?pid=av&tab=subject7 (fast forward to about 47:30 mark)
The hearing began with Senator King giving a brief introduction to the bill, clarifying the fact that currently home wagering on games such as poker and bridge are currently illegal, and that this bill would simply legalize a common and harmless activity that is rarely enforced. The bill covers “games of chance or skill that involve wagering,” provided they are held in a private residence, involve competition against other players, do not involve electronic devices connected to the internet, and are non-raked.
Senator Jamie Raskin posed the first question, stating “this comes up in the context of home poker… are these things actually prosecuted?” King clarified that currently law enforcement agencies make no efforts to enforce this specific law, and that the bill simply aims to repeal an antiquated policy that is still technically on the books. Senator Bobby Zirkin was quick to state his support for the bill, and went further to suggest that the bill be amended to include legalization of other friendly wagering, such as sports betting and NCAA bracket pools.
First to testify was Steve T., who is an Assistant States Attorney in Maryland. Steve’s testimony had a broader focus than just poker, including anecdotal stats and stories about how common and harmless bets (on sports, golf, biggest loser, poker, etc.) between friends are. Testimonies were limited to three minutes, so he had to wrap his prepared speech up earlier than planned, but he did highlight the fact that his profession puts him in a tighter spot than the recreational home game player. This point was extended upon at the H.B. 305 hearing in which he discussed how those in the fields of government, politics, law enforcement, etc. must be extra careful when it comes to harmless home games that are technically illegal.
John Pappas, Executive Director of the PPA, testified next, but unfortunately was not asked any follow-up questions. The hearing moved pretty quickly overall, and it seemed as if committee members were anxious to get through the rest of the bills for the day. John’s testimony can be read in it’s entirety here.
H.B. 305 Hearing – February 11th in House Ways and Means Committee
Video: http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/webmga/frmcommittees.aspx?pid=av&tab=subject7 (fast forward to about 1:45 mark)
The H.B. 305 hearing featured a little more substance, lasting well over 20 minutes. It began with Delegate Reznik’s re-introduction of the bill (very little seems to have changed since last year) and his discussion of the “specter of illegality” over friendly home gaming and wagering. He reiterated that this bill would not lead to an expansion of gambling, only that it makes legal the most common and harmless forms of it. Reznik also claimed that the bill has unofficial support from both law enforcement and casino officials that he has talked to, though both take no public position. He also brought up the fact that, although it is very rarely enforced, home game players worry about scenarios such as angry neighbors or sore losers notifying police, turning a low-stakes friendly game into a charge of operating an unlicensed and illegal casino.
Drew Lesofski, the PPA’s Director of Grassroots and External Affairs, followed up Reznik’s introduction and hit on some similar points, particularly the absurdity of how a friendly card game could be labeled as an unlicensed casino under current Maryland law. Neil O. testified next, sharing his own poker story and why friendly games for low stakes are a safer option for many recreational players. He also mentioned how a smaller group of poker enthusiasts – professionals with security clearances, political implications, etc. – are at greater risk under current law. This point was similar to that mentioned by Steve T. at the S.B. 428 hearing, and low-and-behold, Steve came back to testify once more and elaborate even further on this particular concern.
Steve’s testimony took up the larger part of the hearing (including questioning), and I have to say that his unscripted presentation and handling of questions was spectacular and spot-on. Delegate Eric Luedtke, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Gaming Oversight, took it upon himself to play devil’s advocate in asking questions, adding that he is “semi-supportive” of the bill and that “half the legislature plays.” Luedtke’s questions centered around the ideas of “if it ain’t broke, why fix it,” (if no one is really being prosecuted for breaking this law, why bother with changing the law?) as well as the “law of unintended consequences.” On the latter point, Luedtke stated “you’re opening the door to illicit home games that can’t be enforced… technically by legalizing them, you would have to pay taxes on your winnings, so there would still be some level of illegality.” Steve did a great job of dismissing both the “slippery slope” argument and the assumption that the current law is not broken. It is broken and it does need fixing, and I would suggest anyone even remotely interested in this issue take a few minutes to watch Steve’s testimony.
Stay tuned for more updates on any progress that either of these bills make during this session. In the meantime I would encourage everyone to continue contacting your representatives, particularly the delegates and senators mentioned above. Be sure to thank Delegate Reznik and Senator King for sponsoring the bills, Senator Bobby Zirkin for his enthusiastic support, Delegate Luedtke for his interest and hopeful support, and the PPA for getting behind the efforts to legalize home poker here in Maryland.