Dice-game bill worries gambling watchdogs

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The Montanan Gambling Control Division’s report disclosed that two undercover investigators could not join the game on Thanksgiving Eve because the stakes were too high.

Yet their probe did not fold.

The Nov. 21, 2018 investigation of an illegal dice game at the Butte Country Club motivated a Mining City lawmaker to propose a change in state law that might have kept the club out of hot water.

State Rep. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, introduced House Bill 368 this session. As proposed, the bill would allow customers of businesses licensed to sell alcohol to play a dice game commonly known as “cee-lo” but also referred to as “four-five-six” and other names.

Customers could play the game even if the establishment had an alcohol license but no gambling license, a reality that raises one of several red flags for opponents in Montana of unregulated gambling.

On Feb. 20, the bill handily passed the House, 84-13. A hearing is scheduled for Friday, March 8, before the Senate Committee on Business, Labor and Economic Affairs.

Opponents have included the state’s Gambling Control Division, the Gaming Industry Association of Montana and Don’t Gamble With the Future.

Neil Peterson, executive director of the Gaming Industry Association of Montana, said the organization determined House Bill 368 would legalize a form of gambling that would be completely unregulated in Montana.

“While the location that is licensed for the sale of alcohol is technically not involved, the location will still be responsible for ensuring only legal dice games are played,” Peterson said.

Sue Rolfing, a Columbia Falls-based volunteer with Don’t Gamble With the Future, said the provisions of House Bill 368 raise a host of concerns.

“This bill, as written, is very dangerous,” Rolfing said. “It represents the first game Montana would allow with no regulation and no limits.”

The proposed bill includes no limits on bets or payouts, an omission that troubles the Gambling Control Division and Rolfing.

She said Don’t Gamble With the Future is not opposed to gambling, Instead, she said, the grass-roots, statewide organization simply wants to keep gambling safe and regulated.

Angela Nunn, administrator of the state’s Gambling Control Division, spoke against the bill during a Feb. 14 hearing before the House Committee on Business and Labor.

She used words like “cheating” and “unscrupulous” and “corrupt” to describe the sorts of influences the state tries to keep away from gambling in licensed establishments.

“The regulatory system [the Legislature] designed has been effective in keeping those influences out of the gambling industry here in Montana,” Nunn said.

She said the changes proposed by House Bill 368 “would chip away at our power to do so.”

Nunn described the bill as “a big deviation” from all other currently authorized gambling activities in Montana.

Lynch characterized the bill differently, suggesting it would simply permit a couple of guys sitting at a bar to roll the dice with each other. He said the owner of a liquor license and gambling license should not be penalized for such activity, which he said has been common practice for years.

The investigation of the dice game at the Butte Country Club was launched after an anonymous tip in March 2018 that alleged the club occasionally hosted an illegal dice game in a lower-level room. Such a game was traditionally held the night before Thanksgiving each year, the tipster said.

On Nov. 21, one of the undercover investigators “observed what appeared to be thousands of dollars in $100 bills lying on the oblong table,” according to the Gambling Control Division’s report of the bust.

Ultimately, in early January, the Butte Country Club agreed to a pay a penalty of $2,000 and to suspend all gambling for 21 days.

The state found that “no facts suggest Butte Country Club directly operated or profited from the game.”

During a March 4 phone interview, Lynch said he had not yet read the investigative report about the bust at the club.

He said although he understands the perspective of the Gambling Control Division and other opponents of the “cee-lo” legislation, he believes the change suggested by the bill is reasonable and enforceable and simply protects a bar or club owner from being unfairly penalized for a dice game among patrons.

He said the bill prohibits an establishment where “cee-lo” is played from having a financial interest in the game and bars them from extending credit to a customer wanting to participate.

But Nunn told the House committee “that dice games have a higher propensity for cheating” and observed that “introducing dice at a location can shift into other illegal gambling activities, such as ‘craps.’”

She said the Gambling Control Division understands that a “cee-lo” game might involve small stakes, but noted the division could also envision “instances where there are thousands of dollars on the table and 20 people involved.”

Rolfing said people determined to use dice for gambling could do so with friends at home.

Nunn noted, “The Legislature has always viewed public gambling on a licensed premises differently than private games among friends in their home or around a campfire.”

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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