Utah House passes bill to rid state of ‘fringe gambling’

(Zoi Walker | Tribune file) Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, talks about her coming anti-gambling bill during a Capitol news conference with supporters from law enforcement, local government and religious leaders, Thursday, Feb. 27.

State lawmakers on Wednesday took another swing at rooting out gambling in Utah, an effort they compared to a game of “whack-a-mole.”

The House resoundingly approved a bill to crack down on the “fringe gambling” that has allowed slot machine-like devices to crop up at convenience stores around the state.

“It looks like a cheap gas station on the west side of Las Vegas,” said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns.

The activity is happening despite the state’s strict constitutional prohibitions on lotteries and games of chance, say the bill’s sponsors, who have compared the fringe gambling to a cancer that is spreading through many communities. Rep. Timothy Hawkes, the House sponsor for SB214 in the House, said those profiting from fringe gambling keep finding “creative” ways to exploit loopholes in the state’s laws against these games of chance.

“It’s a little like a game of whack-a-mole,” Hawkes said.

Other lawmakers said gas stations and convenience stores with these fringe gambling devices have become hotspots for illegal activity, such as drug dealing and prostitution. And, those who lose the most to the fringe gambling are often those who can least afford it, they added.

In encouraging his colleagues to support the legislation, Hawkes, R-Centerville, quoted a passage from the Bible about oppressors who “grind the faces of the poor.”

The proposal will clarify which type of machines are legal, define what is considered a fringe gambling machine, increase criminal penalties for owners of gambling machines, and allow people to request double damages for money lost to the owner of the machine.

Having passed the House by a vote of 63 to 8, the bill heads back to the Senate for a final procedural vote.