Legislative small print: Gambling expansion gets a vote Monday | Arkansas Blog

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Legislative small print: Gambling expansion gets a vote Monday

Posted By on Sun, Mar 26, 2017 at 9:54 AM

click to enlarge LUCK BE A MACHINE: Machines selling "instant bingo tickets" — shown here in Florida — are one of many ways machine gambling has insinuated itself into a growing semi-underground business. Legislation in Arkansas would make it harder for law officers to stop. - TAMPA BAY TIMES
  • Tampa Bay Times
  • LUCK BE A MACHINE: Machines selling "instant bingo tickets" — shown here in Florida — are one of many ways machine gambling has insinuated itself into a growing semi-underground business. Legislation in Arkansas would make it harder for law officers to stop.

The push to wrap up the legislative session this coming week inevitably will focus big headlines on things like the highway and Internet tax bills and House Speaker Jeremy Gillam's effort to all but kill the ability for popularly initiated constitutional amendments.

Much devilment lurks in the long agendas, such as the push by some legislators to insinuate more gambling into areas of the state where local prosecutors are willing to turn a blind eye. Games of chance nominally are prohibited by the Arkansas Constitution except in the state lottery, the two racetrack casinos and, for significant merchandise prizes thanks to another dubious law, at Dave and Buster's in Little Rock.

Among efforts to expand gambling in Arkansas currently there is, for example, SB 496, which is on the House agenda Monday for final action. It would prohibit the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division from enforcing laws regarding gambling machines.

That's right: A law to STOP enforcement of the law. The unwritten implication is that other law enforcement officers in certain areas are already complicit with gambling machines that have begun popping up around the state. The ABC has been doing its job, issuing warnings and then writing tickets when they find illegal gambling machines in establishments with alcohol permits. The pushback has been fierce. Gambling machine operators have friends in the legislature, such as Sen. Scott Flippo.

The pushback has been so strong that ABC itself has been quiet in legislative hearings on the subject. But I heard of internal discussion and, under the Freedom of Information Act, received a copy of this letter to others in the ABC from Enforcement Division chief Boyce Hamlet:

Since my first day as the Director of Alcohol Beverage Control I’ve had to make a lot of difficult decisions. Law enforcement officers enforcing our state gaming laws was never one of them. Countless meeting, phone calls, and communications with lobbyists and special interest groups never made me waiver in that decision. As the director I can’t make decisions because they are easy or because they're popular. I have to make them because they're right. There are hard fights worth fighting even though you feel like you are eventually going to lose.

What we interrupted was a multi-million dollar, underground, illegal, untaxed economy. As we discovered in our investigations, these illegal gaming machine companies come from out of state and seek out those most susceptible, the elderly, and our minority communities. Through your efforts you have removed hundreds of machines and prevented the exploitation of thousands of our most vulnerable citizens.

Senate Bill 496 goes to the house floor on Monday. It will prohibit law enforcement officers with the Alcohol Beverage Control Enforcement Division from enforcing our state gaming laws.

If it passes I will issues a directive to my agents and special agents to conclude all of their current criminal cases and administrative violations. I have been in contact with the federal authorities and am prepared to inform them we can no longer assist them. We respect the legislative body and when the legislature speaks we respect their decision.

You have done what was right when it was difficult, shown great integrity, and I am proud of all of you. Thank you for your dedicated service and your efforts in curtailing illegal gambling in our state.

You don’t owe an apology to anyone.

Your Proud Director,

-Boyce Hamlet
Call the roll, Mr. Clerk.

But I must add that this is a hydra-headed monster, with legal efforts underway to get gambling machines declared legal games of skill (after all, that's the gimmick at the two racetrack casinos.) You can wager on horse races around the world by phone now, courtesy of a law passed to help the Arkansas racetracks. Other Internet gambling efforts persist, too. But, in the meanwhile, the law is the law.

Backers of the Senate bill are trying to depict ABC enforcement as an assault on bingo games at VFW halls and Elks lodges. It isn't. Charity bingo is explicitly allowed by the Constitution and I"m aware of no enforcement against any of these outfits for bingo (or poker tournaments, another popular gambling enterprise growing around the state.)

This racket is happening all over the U.S.. Here, for example, is an article from  Florida on questions about machines selling "instant Bingo tickets," the functional equivalent of a scratch-off lottery ticket.  The only skill involved is knowing what law officers will let you get away with it and which won't.

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