The Texas House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures heard two bills hoping to bring legal clarity to the state’s social card rooms. However, it did not take a vote on either.
State Rep. Gene Wu’s House Bill 1601 and state Rep. Ryan Guillen’s House Bill 2345 received public hearings but very little debate from the committee.
During the hearing, the committee heard witness testimonies from both supporters and detractors of each bill. Each witness had three minutes to testify or offer opinions on the bills. Yet, only a few of the witnesses got follow-up questions from committee members.
About 75 Texas poker rooms can operate legally thanks to a carve-out in the law permitting the activity to take place so long as it’s in a private setting and the house doesn’t take a rake.
HB 1601: Local authorities should regulate poker rooms in Texas
Wu’s bill pushes for individual counties to regulate poker rooms in their jurisdictions.
Wu, D-Houston, whose district on the city’s west side contains at least four poker clubs, hasn’t always been agreeable toward poker rooms.
An initial bill Wu introduced in the House this session, had it passed, would have spelled the end of Texas’s social-poker scene because it called for the word “place” to be replaced with “residence” in the Texas gambling statute.
Wu later filed an amended version of the same bill, keeping the “residence” clarification. Now the goal is for a county-by-county licensing of poker clubs.
“This legislation, I want to be very clear, does not legalize gambling,” Wu told the committee. “It does not legalize anything that’s not already legal now.”
The representative went on to explain that poker’s legality in Texas is tied to the phrase “private place,” a term dating to the 1973 passage of the statewide statute. Over the years, a lack of clarity has stretched that definition out of proportion.
That’s why one of the bill’s primary goals is to clearly define what a private game is. According to Wu, that’s playing in a private setting such as your home or a hotel room with your buddies.
“It’s not just for anybody who can walk in off the street,” Wu said.
Another important component of the legislation is that it would create a regulatory framework for counties to start regulating their poker rooms.
Wu said he wasn’t concerned with how the regulation looked, providing counties had the authority to seed out the bad apples by shutting down their operations and not renewing their licenses.
Witness testimonies for and against Texas poker room legislation
Support for the bill came from a Harris County Fire Marshall spokesperson who noted that some of these rooms are a public safety concern and some engage in criminal activities beyond gambling.
“All establishments operating in the area really need to have proper oversight,” the spokesperson said.
What’s crucial is that the county commissioners court is authorized to:
- Regulate the operation of poker clubs;
- Hand out licenses to appropriate clubs;
- Restrict poker clubs within certain areas, like those close to schools and places of worship.
One of the detractors of both poker measures was Daniel Kebort, who is co-owner of the Post Oak Social Club in Houston. Harris County officers raided Post Oak Social Club in 2019.
Kebort shunned Wu’s bill because of the patchwork enforcement mechanism it would create.
“We’re gonna have 254 definitions of the act,” Kebort said. “They don’t give any guidance on what an appropriate licensing structure should look like. They don’t have any infrastructure to enforce and potentially prosecute criminal violations of licensing code.”
HB 2345 receives a cool response
HB 2345 introduced by Guillen, the committee chair, looks to amend the Texas penal code’s gambling definition section to include social poker clubs.
The bill came to life by the owners of several Texas poker clubs who banded together to form the lobbying entity Texans for Texas Hold’em.
They managed to rally an assortment of witnesses. The bill drew little apparent support from the other committee members, however.
Kebort appeared a second time to testify, opposing this bill for mostly the same reasons as HB 1601: too little oversight.
Trent Touchstone, former US Marshal and security expert who works with Champions Poker Club, also testified on behalf of the bill.
UPDATE: House Committee advances HB 2345, leaves HB 1601 pending
On April 12 the Texas House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures reported HB 2345 favorably on an 8-2 vote with one abstention.
The bill now heads to the Calendars Committee to be placed on the legislative calendar. This is no guarantee, and many bills are left to die in this committee.
Lobbyists for HB 2345 have already begun putting out feelers to determine how the Calendars Committee will decide on HB 2345, but the verdict is still out.
HB 1601, by contrast, has been left pending and has until May 8 to receive a favorable report and advance out of committee.