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California and the West

Blackjack Bill Proves an Embarrassing Misdeal

Assembly: Lawmakers consider rescinding approval after realizing they inadvertently OKd '21' at card clubs. Veto seen likely.


SACRAMENTO — California lawmakers voted to legalize blackjack last week for the state's card clubs.

Then they realized they had voted to legalize blackjack for the state's card clubs.

So they fretted. And they paced.

Finally, after considerable hand-wringing and finger-pointing, Assemblyman Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside)--whose button had been pushed in favor of the bill--attempted Friday to rescind the Assembly's action and pull the measure back from the desk of Gov. Gray Davis.

But an interesting thing happened when lawmakers began weighing whether to reverse their decision and actually admit they had unwittingly voted to lift California's 115-year-old ban on blackjack, or "21."

After more debate, a consensus emerged among the lower house's ruling Democrats that although a mistake had clearly been made, the appropriate thing to do was to swallow their pride, offer a congratulatory bow to the bill's author, Assemblyman Dick Floyd (D-Wilmington), a master of parliamentary gamesmanship who is leaving the Legislature this year because of term limits, and carry on with their business.

"This isn't about politics. This is about the 'oops' factor," said Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who did not vote for the bill, AB317. "I think the honest, grown-up thing to do is admit, 'I didn't know what I was doing.' "

Republicans saw it differently.

"This is the kind of politics that sickens the citizens of this state," said Assemblyman Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley), a physician serving his first term in the Legislature.

Floyd, one of the lower house's most colorful and profane members, had a similar bill go down in the Senate a day earlier. But the wily veteran, a tireless card club booster, had another card to play. He had a nearly identical piece of legislation that had been sitting for a year in the Assembly's inactive file, so he dusted it off and put it back on the table.

Lawmakers were apparently caught off guard by Floyd's trump card--or at least that is what they said after 54 of them cast votes for his bill. They grumbled about other people "ghost voting" on their behalf along party lines, an illegal but common practice in Sacramento.

Floyd, ironically, had been making noise about it all day.

"If they were pushing their own buttons, then maybe this would never have happened, huh?" Floyd said with a mischievous grin.

California's 125 card clubs are fighting for their lives now that voters have essentially granted Indian tribes a monopoly on Las Vegas-style gaming.

Several recent court decisions have cast a cloud on whether card clubs, which exist in nearly all of the state's urban areas and provide a critical source of funding for many struggling cities, are operating legally at all. Floyd seeks to make them legitimate again--and to sweeten the pot for good measure by letting the clubs legally run blackjack, something they already do informally by offering games such as 22 instead of 21.

His efforts are almost certainly futile, however. Davis, who now counts the Indian tribes among his closest political allies and largest campaign contributors, is widely expected to veto the bill. The Democratic governor has been working with Assemblyman Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) on legislation that would clearly make card clubs legal again without expanding their gaming offerings.

On Friday, when the final tally against the bill's recision lighted up the large voting boards, Floyd faced Pacheco across the Assembly floor, lifted his arms in victory and forcefully made an obscene gesture.

"There!" Floyd shouted.

As his final hurrah, it could not have been more fitting.

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