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South Carolina unlikely to legalize sports betting, despite U.S. Supreme Court ruling

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Sports Betting

Odds are displayed on a screen at a sports book owned and operated by CG Technology in Las Vegas. The U.S. Supreme Court last May Monday struck down a federal ban on sports betting in other states. File/AP 

COLUMBIA — A short stack of South Carolina legislators is pushing to allow sports betting in the Palmetto State following a U.S. Supreme Court decision Monday that overturned a federal ban.

But the odds are long.

The ruling by the nation's high court leaves states to decide whether people can legally bet on football, basketball and other sports. Under the 1992 federal law it struck, Nevada was the only place where people could bet on results of a single game.

About three dozen states could offer sports betting within five years — from California to Iowa to Delaware. At least five states including New Jersey, Mississippi and West Virginia have passed laws awaiting the high court's ruling. 

But don't bet on those including South Carolina, where even church raffles weren't legal until 2015. 

Pro-gambling legislation sponsored by Democrats officially died when the regular session ended last week. A proposal to ask voters whether casinos should be allowed in one spot or certain areas in South Carolina never even got a subcommittee hearing.  

Rep. Russell Ott, a co-sponsor of that failed idea, said South Carolina needs to pursue sports betting as a way to raise revenue for staffing prisons, raising teachers' pay, fixing public buildings and other needs without raising taxes. 

"This is something states will move aggressively toward and we need to move sooner rather than later so we're not late to the game and playing catch-up," said Ott, D-St. Matthews. "It's going to happen. We need to make sure we take advantage of it."

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, the main author of pro-gambling bills, said he believes legislators should tackle the question in a special session this year.

But House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said that's not going to happen. And he doesn't see the ruling improving the chances of legislation next year either.

Gov. Henry McMaster, who opposed the successful effort in 2000 to create a state lottery, remains opposed to all forms of state-authorized gambling. 

"It flies in the face of everything South Carolina stands for," said his spokesman Brian Symmes. 

Rutherford, D-Columbia, said Republicans are leaving money on the table.

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"They have a president who owns casinos who made a lot of money out of gambling, and yet they still pretend like people aren't going to bet," he said. "If you work in any office in South Carolina, there’s a pool for the Super Bowl. ... People don’t want to break the law. They want to do it legally. They need Republican leadership to get off their behinds."

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said it's the unintended consequences, such as those that led to video poker's rise, that cause worry. 

It took a decade of fighting and numerous court cases before the Legislature managed to ban video poker in 2000. The memory of that fight still looms large in the Statehouse.

Any pro-gambling bill will be "met with a healthy dose of skepticism," Massey said, adding he'd be a tough sell too. "Just because we can get money out of it doesn't mean we need to do it," he said. 

It took the threat of a lawsuit for legislators to pass a law in 2014 that let retirees legally play bridge.

The law, pushed by Sen. Tom Davis, allowed social groups to gather at someone's home or community clubhouse to play games with cards, dice or tiles, while still banning bets. Davis, R-Beaufort, proposed the bill in 2013 after state police warned Sun City Hilton Head that the bridge and canasta social clubs it advertised violated state law.    

Davis told his colleagues then if anyone blocked his efforts to tweak the state's 1802 anti-gambling laws, he'd sue to have them thrown out altogether, allowing for gambling in all forms. 

Davis said Monday the U.S. Supreme Court "did the right thing," as nothing in the U.S. Constitution allows Congress to ban sports betting.

While he's sure the decision will ramp up the debate in the Statehouse, if the fight over non-betting social games is any indication, anyone wanting to allow sports betting will "have a very tough row to hoe," he said.   

The American Gaming Association estimates that Americans illegally wager about $150 billion on sports each year, and one research firm estimated before the ruling that if the Supreme Court were to strike down the law, 32 states would likely offer sports betting within five years.

The federal government and all four major U.S. professional sports leagues and the NCAA had urged the court to uphold the federal law, with the leagues saying a gambling expansion would hurt the integrity of their games. Those concerns are rooted in past gambling scandals.

The leagues don’t want anyone thinking the outcome of their games could be altered by someone with money on a certain result. They argued that legal sports betting in the United States would require them to spend a lot more money monitoring betting patterns and investigating suspicious activity.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

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