HELENA — A Senate committee on Thursday quickly tabled a bill that sought to legalize live blackjack games in Montana and use the permitting fees "for the care of unfortunate and disabled persons."
The Senate Finance and Claims Committee voted 13-6 to table House Bill 423, by Rep. Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder, likely killing it for the session.
Nobody appeared to testify in favor of the bill at a hearing earlier in the day, while some tavern owners and longtime opponents of gambling expansion spoke against it.
Belcourt told the committee that he likes to fly to Las Vegas and play blackjack. He said he's trying to add one more legal game to keep some dollars in Montana and generate some additional money for human services.
The legislator said he owns a bar, but that his tavern business is down since the state ban on smoking in bars and casinos took effect in October 2009.
"This is just one more tool that I would like to see to have the option to expand my business and provide another game that would generate some revenue for my business," Belcourt said.
Adding blackjack isn't expanding gambling, he said, adding: "All we're doing is adding a game."
Sue Rolfing of Columbia Falls, who has fought the expansion of gambling for two decades, blasted HB423 as "a huge gambling expansion bill masquerading as a social services funding bill."
Rolfing called it "a fraud and an insult" to tout HB423 as a bill "to help disabled, mentally ill, abused, elderly, developmentally disabled, victims of domestic violence, suicidal Montanans and those needing long-term care or foster child care, as the bill specifies.
The fiscal note for the bill projects that by fiscal year 2015, it would raise "a measly $98,838 to help all these people," she said. It also would attract nearly $150,000 in matching federal money or human services.
However, Rolfing said, the fiscal note failed to account for what she called the added costs that blackjack would cause for social services, bankruptcies, welfare, social services and prison space "as required by a notoriously corrupt industry."
Douglas Palagi of Great Falls, one of five partners who operate six taverns and gambling establishments in Great Falls and Cut Bank, said the bill would skew the current level playing field in Montana. Only a few operators in each community would have the space and resources available to have live blackjack tables, he said.
"We would have the haves and the have-nots," Palagi said. "I think this would be very unhealthy for the industry."