Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) -- The House Business and Labor committee heard testimony on Thursday on a bill that would get rid of the $800 restrictions on the amount that can be won in a live poker game.

Rep. Ron Marshall, R-Hamilton, sponsors the bill. 

He says that House Bill 209 would allow cardrooms to raise the pot of a poker game as much as they’d like -- to allow for true highstakes, unlimited games. Right now the pot is capped so the game must stop as soon as the cumulative amount of money bet reaches $800. 

“This would allow a card room owner to successfully have a true no-limit game. Meaning, table stakes. The money on the table is what's being played for. This is more of a freedom bill when it comes to that,” Marshall said.  

There were no proponents of the bill but Shauna Helfert with the Gaming Industry Association opposed the bill. She said the $800 dollar cap is already a fair compromise.

“Regulation is a necessary evil. It creates an equal and fair playing field. Montana gaming regulation, over time, has evolved and we believe that it's come to a sweet spot,” Helfert said.  

The current laws also prevent Montanans from having to report their winnings to the IRS. If the bill passes, Montanans who won more than $1,200 would have to report their earnings. 

Helfert also said that the $800 dollar cap is in place to protect Montanans from themselves -- or extreme gambling losses. 

“Somebody could get at a poker table and they got in the heat of the moment and just kept on betting and betting and betting and there would be no limit and they could lose their farm,” Helfert said.  

According to a 2013 study from the Department of Justice, 2.2% of Montanans struggle with gambling addiction -- 1,243 of which sought outpatient treatment. 

Marshall said extreme loss wouldn’t be an issue because credit gambling is illegal in Montana, so even if a gambler got caught up in the moment there would be no way they could gamble more than the money they have on hand. 

“There's the heat of the moment, but you don't see people throwing the mortgage out there and all of that. It's usually stake and somebody, if somebody goes bust on the table, they'll just say, ‘okay, see you later’ and leave. So you're not, you're not going to see somebody betting the family fortune in one game,” Marshall said.  

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill. 

Elinor Smith is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.