Bills aim to clarify S.C. gambling law

The S.C. legislature is looking at the centuries-old gambling law that bans gambling at home and charity raffles.

COLUMBIA -- People who bet on kitchen table poker will have to hope that police will look the other way, unless lawmakers decide to clarify what types of games constitute illegal gambling in South Carolina.

The issue of selective enforcement under the centuries-old gambling ban has been up for debate since a raid on a Texas Hold 'em game at a Mount Pleasant home in 2006. The same law bans charity raffles.

Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell and Rep. Jim Merrill will push legislation on the law pending in the House and Senate. But they face resistance from some lawmakers wary of any change that risks opening the door to video poker and commercial gambling.

Merrill, R-Daniel Island, said the bills could come up for a vote in the House before the end of the week. The legislation has several parts, including a constitutional amendment, intended to put law enforcement on clear footing, Merrill said. Part of the legislation must still clear the House Ways and Means Committee. The bills would allow churches and nonprofit groups to host games and raffles intended to raise money and allow friends and family to play card and dice games in their homes, he said.

Merrill added that 90 percent of the proceeds for the charity fundraising events have to go toward the religious and philanthropic causes, and the churches and organizations would be limited in the number of events that can be held in a year.

Advocates for the legislation say officers have engaged in selective enforcement over the years, and many argue that the games have been technically against state law since 1802.

"The legislation expressly says there can be no electronic gaming," Merrill said. "In no way shape or form" do the bills allow casinos or video poker.

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, said he worries that the legislation may create "a loophole for mischief." The way video poker became legal in South Carolina -- which the Legislature outlawed about a decade ago -- was the elimination of two words in the 1986 budget bill, Campsen said.

"When you change gaming laws, the commercial gambling industry often sues itself into existence," he said.

Video poker in the state was the most unregulated gaming in the country because the Legislature didn't intend to create it and, for a long time, lawmakers couldn't get rid of it, Campsen said. He said he also worries about the way campaign contributions from the industry could corrupt the political process.

"It's like handling a snake," he said. "They have demonstrated a propensity to bite ya."

The legislation has been on the Senate calendar since the end of session last year with no action. McConnell, R-Charleston, said the Senate has been tied up on significant issues, including passing spending caps and a cigarette tax increase.

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McConnell said he will push the Senate to take up the bills, but if that doesn't happen before summer adjournment, the legislation will be dead. It would then have to move through the committee process again in January because this summer marks the end of the Legislature's two-year cycle. McConnell said if the bills can't make it out of the Legislature this year, he will try again next year.

One Charleston radio personality tried to do what he could to push the point this past weekend while the Navy's Blue Angels enthralled the city with daredevil performances over Charleston Harbor.

Richard Todd, host of "The Morning Buzz" on 1250 WTMA-AM and Comcast C2, said he took his wife and 7-year-old son to Waterfront Park in Charleston to watch the fliers perform and brought along a deck of cards and Yahtzee.

"We're playing and we're having fun and making noise and the cops walk right past us and they don't even look twice, and why should they? It's a stupid law," Todd said.

Todd said the Legislature should update the law because, among other things, it would help charities raise money during the economic downturn. WTMA hosted the "Inaugural Holy City Poker Challenge" about four years ago during which 500 people raised $7,000 to benefit cancer research. That station hasn't been able to hold the tournament since then because of the law.