Oregon Poker Room Fights State Law

Oregon Poker Room Fights State Law
Portland Meadows poker room in jeopardy

As in many states in America, laws relating to poker in Oregon are complicated. That makes the situation between Portland Meadows and the Oregon Lottery even more problematic as it pertains to the legality of poker rooms.

The yearlong battle is coming to a head at the end of October, as the Oregon Lottery has set a date to revoke the video lottery license of Portland Meadows, which offers the largest selection of video lottery terminals in the state. But Portland Meadows has repeatedly refused to close its poker room, and the Oregon Lottery is ready to uphold its ultimatum and pull the license.

As it stands, with neither party willing to budge, the courts may be asked to step in at the end of October to make some decisions about Oregon’s poker laws.

Ambiguous Laws Require Clarity

Oregon first authorized gambling in the form of racetrack betting in 1946 and now offers off-track betting at more than 10 sites throughout the state. The lottery was legalized in 1984 when the public voted favorably to establish the Oregon Lottery.

Native American tribes won the right to operate gambling establishments on their lands in the 1980s, and several of the nine tribes in Oregon now operate everything from bingo to full-fledged casinos, including all casino games and poker. There are now nine casinos in the state, all run by tribes, but proposals by some to run casinos outside of their reservations have been rejected.

Charitable gaming was legalized in 1971, but the authorization of Texas Hold’em poker for charitable fundraisers did not happen until 2005.

Social gaming was officially legalized in 1973, and that allowed business and private clubs to run games like blackjack and poker only if they did not take a profit from the games. That led to licensed poker clubs setting up in Portland in 2007 and going forward, with profit generated by entrance fees and food and beverage sales.

Video lottery terminals were authorized by the state legislature in 1989 for operation in bars, but the Oregon Lottery did not officially allow them until 1991 when private machines were banned in favor of state-owned ones. Slot machine-like terminals were added in 2005.

Poker Under Fire

Poker has long been a source of conflict in the state. In 2013, for example, a house bill (HB.3518) was introduced to shut down all poker rooms in the state by banning social gaming except in situations of non-profit functions, fraternities, and churches. Despite club owners not profiting from poker games or tournaments, some legislators felt poker was growing too fast and becoming too widespread. Ultimately, the bill lost momentum quickly due to the overwhelming support for poker rooms.

Another attempt came up this year in the form of HB.2190. The bill intended to ban “for profit” poker in the state, just as the 2013 legislation, relegating legal games only to non-profits, fraternities, ad churches. This bill garnered momentum in the House of Representatives and passed in May by a vote of 39-16. The legislation included law enforcement and the tribal casino operators among its supporters, the latter of which reported to be losing $10 to $15 million per year in potential poker revenue.

More than a dozen poker rooms now operate in the city of Portland, as well as another half-dozen in the metropolitan area. Their fate laid in the hands of the Oregon Senate, but that body never passed the bill to make it law.

Oregon Lottery Takes Aim at Poker

Without legislation in place to legally close down poker rooms, those opposed have tried to find other ways to usurp the spaces in which the games currently operate. One of those places is Portland Meadows, the racetrack that hosts a poker room and video lottery terminals.

In July, the Oregon Lottery took the step of canceling its contract with Portland Meadows, which would remove the 10 video lottery terminals. The basis for the nullification of the contract is the establishment’s operation of a poker room, which the Oregon Lottery says violates the state’s gaming laws. Though the games do not collect rake for the house or charge tournament fees, the Oregon Lottery stands by its claim of illegality and alleges that tournament prize pools act as the “house bank.”

Portland Meadows has objected to these tactics and formally requested that the Oregon Lottery reconsider the move, but there is no cooperation as of yet. There is now a deadline of October 30 for Portland Meadows to cease all poker operations or lost the machines.

Should Portland Meadows stand its ground, the situation may turn into a lawsuit seeking a formal judgment on the matter. The racetrack currently benefits to the tune of $350K per year in revenue from the machines, and $1.83 million is delivered to the state. With that type of money in play, the courts will likely be charged with making a ruling.

 

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