Nebraska senators reject bill defining poker as skill game

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Supporters of legalizing poker in Nebraska were dealt a bad hand Thursday when lawmakers defeated a bill that would have classified poker as a game of skill, rather than a constitutionally banned game of chance.

That classification would have allowed draw poker and community card games to be licensed and regulated, as well as permit churches and nonprofits to host poker tournaments at events where alcohol is served.

“We hear a lot about property tax relief, limited government and the state not getting involved. If we care about those issues, here’s an outside-the-box opportunity to show that we take these things seriously,” bill sponsor Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill said. “We can help our local communities and their fundraising efforts.”

To qualify, a group would have to seek a poker endorsement when applying for a special liquor license with the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. All players would have to be at least 21 years old, and games could only be played with cash.

Larson said skill is a greater factor in poker than luck, so his bill wouldn’t run afoul of the state constitution.

But the winning side said encouraging gambling in any form harms families and communities.

“We’re going into very dangerous territory here by slowly and surely peeling away that which makes us great,” said Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft. “I think this is chance. I’m not willing to bet Nebraska’s future on expanded gambling.”

Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion called the bill an ineffective way to achieve the Legislature’s goal of reducing property taxes.

“It’s similar to saying I’m going to lose weight and I’m going to be better fit in the new year by eating a box of doughnuts every day,” Smith said.

Opponents also pointed to a Nebraska attorney general’s opinion which concluded that draw poker is primarily a game of chance.

After the maximum six hours of debate, Larson’s measure received only 16 votes of the 33 needed to cease debate and force a vote on the bill. The Legislature could continue the bill’s debate this year, but only if a senator or committee designates it priority. Larson says he has not yet decided whether he’ll do that.

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