Senators advance bills allowing social gambling

features -- Poker Illustration for Judy Watts . (GRACE BEAHM/STAFF)

COLUMBIA — Playing poker in a friend's home and buying a raffle ticket to benefit a local school could become legal in South Carolina under bills advanced today by lawmakers.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation that would revise the state's 207-year-old gambling laws, which ban "any game with cards or dice." Interpreted literally, those include board games such as Sorry.

Senators said their goal was to let people play Monopoly, Bridge, or no-to-low-stakes poker with family and friends without creating unintended consequences such as those that led to video poker's rise.

"Right now, they're classified as criminals," Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, about card players.

The bills move to the full Senate but have virtually no chance of passing this year, with just five legislative days left in the calendar.

One measure, approved 12-8, would allow people to gamble socially in private homes, where there're no house odds, bank or profit — whether they're playing Texas Hold 'em or betting on a horse race. It would also allow nonprofits to hold up to two, six-hour casino-night fundraisers yearly, provided there are no slot machines or video gaming, and 90 percent of the money goes to the charity.

Currently, the state's centuries-old gaming laws are enforced haphazardly, depending on the law enforcement agency and whether someone complains — something Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell called "just flat wrong."

Gambling arrests in Charleston County prompted McConnell, R-Charleston, to propose the legislation in March.

In February, five of 20 poker players arrested in a 2006 raid on a Mount Pleasant home were found guilty of illegal gambling. They were ordered to pay a $262 fine for the misdemeanor tickets. The others arrested, including a then-79-year-old woman, previously settled their cases by paying fines. In March, police stopped a casino-theme fundraiser for a Charleston private school.

"We don't want our police officers busting down people's doors, of family and friends who are playing Rummy or nickel poker or strip poker," said Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia, who quickly added, amid laughter, that he doesn't advocate the latter. "This is to separate the criminal gambler from a person who just wants to play card games with some friends."

But some senators said they still worried about potential loopholes. It took a decade of fighting and numerous court cases before the Legislature managed to ban video poker in 2000.

"I always get nervous when we amend gambling laws, which is legitimate when you consider the history," said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms.

Others wanted to specify what's considered friendly gambling, noting there could be unruly, high-stakes games or sports betting in private homes. And they worried about condoning such behavior. Knotts, a retired law enforcement officer, jokingly offered to relieve senators' "heartburn" with an amendment that all guns must be checked at the door.

"When you start talking about high-stakes gambling, even if it's among individuals in private homes, that's a big change in public policy," said Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens.

A separate proposal, approved 14-6, would ask voters whether the state constitution should be changed to allow nonprofit groups to hold a limited number of raffles yearly. Currently, the only legal raffle is the state lottery.

South Carolina's Lions clubs have lost roughly $500,000 since last year, when state law enforcement officers — responding to a complaint — threatened a Tega Cay club that was raffling off a motorcycle, said state executive director Gregg Turner, among just two full-time Lions workers left after two layoffs.

He said he advised the state's 160 clubs to cease all raffles out of fear members would get arrested. The drastic drop in revenue has caused a backlog of residents needing the hearing aids, eye surgeries, and vision and hearing screenings the money provides, Turner said.

Oran Smith, president of the Palmetto Family Council, said Turner's case is an example of what senators should have concentrated on fixing.

"This should never have been about poker," he said.