Support Local Journalism


HELENA — A bill introduced at the Legislature calls for legalizing the game of blackjack, or twenty-one, in Montana, and dividing the tax proceeds among pension, educational, social services and tribal scholarship programs.

Rep. Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, is sponsoring House Bill 578, which would allow up to three live blackjack games in a bar or casino and allow electronic video blackjack games in those establishments. Rep. Steve Lavin, R-Kalispell, and House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, are cosponsors.

The House Taxation Committee will hear the bill on Wednesday.

“We brought it to help the budget crisis,” Galt said in an interview. “We figured an optional tax is better than a forced tax for everyone.”

“I’ve always been a big blackjack player,” he added. “But I’ve gotten tired of taking my money to Vegas or Deadwood. So I figured it would be a good way to raise money for the state. It an option that people can do.”

Lavin agreed, saying, “Blackjack is a big draw for a lot of Montanans, particularly eastern Montanans. They go to South and North Dakota.”

The House in 2011 passed a bill by Rep. Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder, to legalize blackjack and use any proceeds to help fund social services, but it was tabled by a Senate committee.

Under Galt’s bill, all tax proceeds from blackjack would go to the general fund until mid-2019.

After that, the bill would dedicate 14 percent of the revenue to each of seven areas: the sheriffs’ retirement system, the Department of Public Health and Human Services for suicide prevention, DPPHS for gambling addiction programs, the Office of Public Instruction for K-12 vocational-education programs, OPI for advanced placement programs, DPPHS for the Stars to Quality early education program and to the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education for tribal scholarships. The remaining 2 percent would go to the state general fund.

If the law passes, blackjack players could wager up $200 per live game, with a maximum prize of $800. For video gambling machines, the maximum blackjack would be $2 per game, but payouts wouldn’t match the $800 maximum for video poker, Galt said

The state would charge a licensed operator a tax of 5 percent of the gross income from each live blackjack table, minus any money stolen from a table. Dealers would be required to pay a $200 annual licensed fee initially, and $100 a year in subsequent years.

Galt said he and cosponsors settled on a maximum three live blackjack tables for each bar or casino.

“We want this to be a Montana thing where it’s just a small thing in bars,” Galt said. “We don’t want big casinos coming in.”

The state Justice Department’s Gambling Control Division, which regulates gambling here, will oppose the bill at the hearing, spokesman Eric Sell said.

“Something as significant as this should go through the Gaming Advisory Committee, where you could have a lot more discussion,” Sell said, referring to the panel that studies gambling issues between legislative sessions.

The fiscal report from the governor’s budget office analyzing the bill’s potential financial impacts has not yet been released.

However, preliminary work by the Justice Department’s Gambling Control Division estimated it would cost the state more to regulate blackjack than the game would generate in revenue.

The state Revenue Department is monitoring the bill on behalf of the administration of Gov. Steve Bullock.

Support Local Journalism

To see what else is happening in Gallatin County subscribe to the online paper.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.