All George Lambert wanted was a freedom to play poker law.
But instead, Lambert, a Republican state rep from Litchfield, says his original legislation, HB 1260, was "gutted like a fish" and amended to close a loophole in the existing sweepstakes and gaming law.
The amended bill passed the NH House and Senate June 18, specifically targeting organizations like the year-old operation in Nashua, Big's Internet Cafe, Lambert said.
On Tuesday Nashua Police confirmed that there is an open investigation of the gaming cafe. According to another business owner in the Sun Plaza, police visited the business at 295 Daniel Webster Highway last week and removed computer equipment.
No other details were available about the "ongoing investigation," police said.
Paul Kelly, director of the state's Racing and Charitable Gaming Department in Concord, declined to comment about the Nashua business when contacted today. But he did say that charitable gaming is a multimillion dollar industry for the state.
According to the state gaming commission website, currently that department regulates:
live horse racing and simulcast horse and greyhound racing; and games of chance including bingo and Lucky 7. The Commission's duties include the adjudication of hearing, the licensing of racetracks and individuals (drivers, owners, trainers, etc.), and the collection of taxes and fees associated with bingo, lucky 7, and games of chance.
The legislation has prompted legal action against the state from at least one business owner with similar gaming operations in Portsmouth and Seabrook. That lawsuit, filed against the state attorney general in Rockingham County Superior Court, calls the new law "unconstitutional," according to a recent story by Seacoast Online.
Lambert, a primary sponsor of HB 1260, said the problem for Big's Cafe was that it was able to operate under an exemption in the previous gaming law, by calling it a sweepstakes and not directly accepting cash. He expressed further concern that without oversight it is impossible for players to know what their chances of winning (or losing) were, and how much the business was netting in profit.
Lambert said he attempted to see how the sweepstakes games operated at a similar establishment in Manchester.
"I was able to read the instructions, but wasn't able to play. When I tried to investigate, they wouldn't talk to me," Lambert said, who described the games as sweepstakes slot machines.
"Explicitly, the language in the bill as amended by the House and Senate was specifically designed to address places like Big's for operating under a loophole of the law that allowed them to go out and sell phone cards and other things that resemble slot machine gambling," Lambert said.
"That exemption was removed from the law with the passage of HB 1260, which is why they are now able to shut them down," Lambert said.
For example, when it comes to scratch lottery tickets, the odds are printed on the back clearly. Slot machines in casinos are regulated to make sure payouts are predictable and consistent, Lambert said. Such regulations are in place to show that, as a game of chance, it's not rigged.
"Big's was operating under the exception that says if you give us cash we'll convert it into points, and then you go and play with those points and then you can redeem the difference between what you have back to cash; that's called fungible – the ability to exchange one thing for another," Lambert said.
Lambert said he is not opposed to regulation of gaming. But he said overbearing regulation and a "nanny state" mentality is the wrong direction. Under the current rules, it is a violation of law to have a slot machine operation that is unregulated or approved by the state, and state doesn't approve any slot machines.
"Do I think the state should change that? Yes, I do. However that set of operations benefits from some level of oversight that creates consumer protection. In places where slots are regulated, more than 90 percent of the money goes back to players. No one knows for sure what that percentage is in an operation run by Big's, and there's no way to validate that, so there is a potential for consumer fraud or abuse," Lambert said.
As for his original goal, of addressing the regulations on playing poker, it is still technically illegal here in New Hampshire to sit down and play the game for money – even if you're playing for quarters with grandma around the kitchen table.
If reelected, he will reintroduce legislation to expand poker restrictions in New Hampshire.
"There are people who jump out of perfectly good airplanes for the thrill. There are even businesses that allow you to do that. So if you're willing to take the risk of climbing a mountain, skiing down a mountain, riding a horse, jumping from plane, and waive your right to nanny state regulation, why not allow a person to participate in a game of chance under the same type of release?" said Lambert.
Lambert said while HB 1260 is sound, because some rule of law is acceptable in the arena of gaming, he'd prefer to see the state allow consenting adults waive their rights, rather than be told how they can spend their time and money.
"I believe, 100 percent, that if it's your money and you've earned it, you should be able to do whatever you want with it," Lambert said. "Do you see the paradox?"