South Carolina's Democratic lawmakers still hope the state will one day legalize sports gambling, but they admit the risks may be too high for Republicans to take a chance on it this session.
A new report identified South Carolina as one of 18 states eyeing legislation to regulate sports betting this session. Already, Indiana and Kentucky have introduced bills, while Pennsylvania and Connecticut have already passed bills.
The findings come from Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, which tracks gambling legislation nationwide. The firm says says the 18 states could be just the start, though, and predicts more than 30 states could introduce their own sports betting bills.
In South Carolina, the likelihood of passing any gambling bill is plain out of luck, said state Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews.
"Realistically speaking, it’s an election year. In a majority-Republican body, the chances of a legitimate shot at it this year are not very high. What I’m hoping is to continue to be able to talk about it," Ott said.
Last year, Ott joined fellow Democrat and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford in sponsoring House Bill 3102. The bill would legalize gambling — including bets on horse racing, professional sports, and games of chance on electronic and gaming tables — in certain parts of the state. It would also legalize card and dice games that require skill rather than chance.
But legalizing sports betting would require yet another change to the state's constitution. Voters in 2000 approved a state lottery, with revenue going to education. The following year, the Legislature passed a law laying out the specifics.
The latest gambling bill effort does not have the support of Gov. Henry McMaster, according to Brian Symmes, the governor's spokesman.
"It’s a loser and it's inconsistent with the core beliefs of South Carolinians," Symmes said of the bill.
David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said more states are turning to gambling as a new revenue source for priorities such as education and roads.
"Even if states had all the money for everything they need, taxes would still be too high and programs would still be unfunded," Schwartz said. "I don't think that, in this political climate, states will ever reach a budget equilibrium. So gambling is going to look more and more attractive until it is, for many states, irresistible."
Despite its culturally conservative roots, other Southern states are opening their eyes to the glitzy possibility of gambling. While some states, like Alabama, have stayed away from embracing casinos, others like Mississippi have been more open. He points to South Carolina's willingness toward legalizing a lottery as a turning point.
"With that step, the state basically said that gambling is okay. It's not morally reprehensible and, if it's used to fund education, it can be a good thing," he said. "As state lotteries mature and become a familiar part of the landscape, objections against expanded gambling become muted."
The question over state gambling is also at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case. The court this year is expected to rule on a New Jersey case that seeks to overturn a federal ban on sports betting. Known as the Bradley Act, the 25-year-old law prohibits states from legalizing sports betting, except in the four states where it was already legal: Nevada, Oregon, Montana and Delaware.
In South Carolina, the gambling laws were so tight that even church cake walks and quilt raffles weren't officially legal until 2015. That year the Legislature certified a voter referendum allowing nonprofits to hold raffles, following a years-long effort from former GOP Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, who is now College of Charleston president.
Ott said responsible gaming could help the state do "amazing things," from helping an understaffed corrections system to funding roads.
"We are somewhat hypocritical in South Carolina, where we have state-sponsored gambling (the lottery), but don’t allow people to engage on their own accord," Ott said. "The benefits are there certainly, if done in a responsible and thoughtful way. I hope to continue to show the will is there."
Seanna Adcox and The Associated Press contributed to this report.