State lawmakers should put outlawing Internet gaming machines at the top of their agenda
It took years for South Carolina to get ride of video poker machines and forestall some of the societal ills associated with gambling.
But 12 years after video poker was finally outlawed, gaming machines of a similar sort are back in stores, bars and parlors throughout the state. Gamers are taking their seats in front of them and spending money in hopes of making some more.
If video poker machines were bad for South Carolina in 2000 (and they were), these Internet gaming machines are bad for South Carolina in 2012.
The Legislature needs to rid the state of them during the coming session.
The sticking point is how to define gambling machines. People playing video poker when it was legal paid money to play on a screen. They could win or lose hundreds of dollars. The machines were controlled by computer chips.
Todayís Internet gaming is being promoted as a first cousin to legal sweepstakes games like ones offered through McDonaldís, Publishers Clearing House and Starbucks in that the odds of winning are pre-determined and the outcome is set, no matter what players do.
That sounds like a loophole that needs closing.
In any event, the General Assembly must clarify the situation and ensure that the devastating side effects of gambling do not take hold again in the state.
Before video poker was outlawed, the state was addicted to it. At its peak, it was a $2.8 billion industry.
And while some cities are trying to hold back the present tide of Internet gambling, the haze of confusion regarding its legality is making it difficult for local authorities to see the best plan of action.
Goose Creek, for example, banned businesses offering ďsimulatedĒ gambling.
Charleston imposed a moratorium on Internet cafes that resemble poker arcades, reasoning that their status was unclear. Are they games of fun or illegal gambling?
Now Council is considering regulating such cafes through zoning. They would be considered adult-oriented businesses but not allowed near churches and schools.
City Council member Bill Moody said he is disappointed the Legislature hasnít cleared up the gray area. He would like them outlawed. But if the state fails to do that, he thinks the city should tax and control them.
It would be a pity if lawmakers fail to take responsibility for the issue, even if doing so proves difficult.
The gaming industry has some powerful lobbyists, including former Columbia Mayor Bob Coble, and has a stable of lawyers primed for the fight.
But the state attorney generalís office and SLED are among those who want such machines banned.
State Rep. Phyllis Henderson, R-Greer, introduced a law this year to ban the machines. It passed the House but was caught in a bottleneck in the Senate.
Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, introduced a similar bill in the Senate and said he will reintroduce it next year.
This month, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the stateís ban on video sweepstakes.
Meanwhile, as law enforcement officers report that Internet gambling machines are proliferating, we might remember what heartbreak comes from gambling.
In 1997, a mother left her 10-day-old baby inside a car for seven hours while she played video poker. The baby died from dehydration.
More recently, a Columbia woman was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for embezzling nearly $400,000 from the South Carolina Hospitality Association to support her addiction to gambling. The associationís director, distressed by the missing funds, took his own life.
Call it sweepstakes, and sugarcoat it as a friendly game.
But if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, itís likely a duck ó a gambling duck whose ugly presence we donít need in South Carolina.