Two Texas poker bills held without votes after committee hearing

Haley Hintze Author Photo
Haley Hintze
Posted on: April 05, 2023 12:43 PDT

Two competing Texas bills designed to bring legal clarity to the state's "social poker club" scene faltered during their initial consideration on Wednesday by the Texas House Committee on Licensing & Administrative Procedures, the bills' first committee stop.

Neither State Representative Gene Wu's HB 1601 nor State Representative Ryan Guillen's HB 2345 bills generated significant interest or questions from committee members before being designated as "pending" by the committee. The designation is the most common fate for bills that lack sufficient support to pass an initial committee vote. Either bill could receive renewed interest, though their likeliest future is to be allowed to lapse in committee, thus leaving Texas's loosely-defined status quo regarding social poker clubs' legality unchanged for the time being.

Each bill received witness testimony from both supporters and detractors of the respective measures. Except for the bills' primary sponsors, each witness received just three minutes to tesify or offer opinions on the bills, and only a couple of the witnesses received any follow-up questioning from committee members.

Rep. Wu argues for county-by-county approach

Rep. Wu, a Houston Democratic, was often antagonistic toward the current state of the Texas poker scene. His bill as initially introduced would've created a virtual ban on Texas's poker clubs by changing the single word "place" to "residence" in the applicable Texas gambling statutes, though Wu later filed an amended bill that kept the "residence" clarification that would allow for poker clubs to be licensed on a county-by-county basis.

Wu's district on Houston's west side currently contains at least four poker clubs, which have endured varying levels of notoriety and Wu painted himself as primarily a foe of the poker clubs through his own statements and the witnesses he called.

“This legislation, I want to be very clear, does not legalize gambling," Wu began. "It does not legalize anything that’s not already legal now. Then Wu explained how poker's legality in Texas hinges on the meaning of the phrase “private place,” which dates back to the 1973 passage of the statewide statute.

"Over time," Wu added, "that definition has been sort of stretched and pulled and squished….

"All this legislation is doing is number one, putting the definition of what is a private game back to what I think the legislature intended, which is you’re playing at home, you’re playing in a hotel room, you’re playing with your buddies. It’s not just anybody who can walk in off the street.

"Number two, it creates a regulatory mechanism for counties to start regulating their rooms. I don’t really care what the regulation says, at the end of the day. I just want counties to be able to say, 'You know what, you’re a bad actor, we’re not going to renew your license.' And now counties have a way to shut down operations who are not following the law, or are straight up breaking the law. That’s it. If we don’t pass this legislation, then things will stay exactly the way they are, which is that poker rooms are completely and utterly unregulated."

Wu acknowledged, "There are some good actors, and there are some bad actors." But he then declared that all the rooms collect rake, and that if their alternate revenue streams such as food and alcohol sales were removed, the clubs would still find illegal ways to operate and that the rooms could not be effectively enforced against anyway under the state's existing laws. "Poker rooms [are] essentially feeding into criminal activity, into organized crime," Wu also declared.

Wu introduces Christensen's misleading testimony

Rep. Wu also detailed how a poker room’s legality is thus up to the whim of whoever decides what “private place” means, with opinions and rulings that can change day to day. He then stated that there were "hundreds of such clubs in Texas, a hyperbolic exaggeration. About 75 social poker clubs operate in the state at the present time.

Wu then introduced supporting witnesses, and he led off with Laurie Christensen, of the Harris County Fire Marshal's office. Christensen shared more hyperbole and misinformation with the committee, detailing how marshals raided an underground club on Houston's north side last September.

Christensen repeated for the committee the details publicized by Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez last September, especially that the underground club was home to all sorts of illegal activity.

What neither Christensen nor Wu explained to the committee, however, was that the north Houston raid involved only video games, including slots and possibly video poker. The room had no actual poker of the type being debated under Wu's own bill.

Wu's and Christensen's misrepresentations weren't the only ones the committee heard. Rob Kohler, a consultant for the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, was the hearing's pre-requisite anti-gambling witness. Kohler repeatedly insisted to the committee that poker was strictly illegal in Texas and could only be made lawful through a constitutional amendment. Kohler's assertion was countered by other witnesses. Kohler also described the current grey legal regarding poker in Texas as the “little rabbit holes they’ve created," referring to the workarounds under which the Texas clubs currently operate.

Another witness testifying against both bills was Daniel Kebort, the co-owner of the Post Oak Social Club in Houston that was raided by Harris County officers in 2019. Kebort was against Wu's bill because of the patchwork enforcement mechanism it would create, and he was against the second bill, the Texans for Hold'em-backed HB 2345, over other technical points, including the bill's lack of specific enforcement regulations.

HB 2345 met with little enthusiasm

Following committee discussion of an unrelated bill, the Licensing & Administrative Procedures members heard from HB 2345's backers and detractors. Committee chair Ryan Guillen moved to the podium to present the bill's still-sparse specifics, noting that a replacement bill had also been authored.

HB 2345 was created by the owners of several large Texas poker clubs and their new lobbying entity, Texans for Hold'em, but it still drew little apparant support from the other committee members. A larger assortment of witnesses than that appearing for Wu's bill offered short statements, including a female player from San Antonio who commented on the relative safety of poker clubs compared to private games, and a security officer from one of the Texas clubs backing the bill, who also shared accounts of relative safety while heralding the clubs as the opening wave of a new industry in the state.

Despite that, the House committee continued their rush through a short day's work. And like HB 1601 just minutes earlier, HB 2345 was consigned to the pending-legislation drawer, with no future action scheduled.

Featured image source: Texas House Committee on Licensing & Administrative Procedures