The legislature and law enforcement keep moving ahead with their efforts to pull the plug on Internet sweepstakes machines in South Carolina.
Last week, the Senate passed a bill that would close a loophole that some say sweepstakes operators use to place the computerized machines in stores and bars and to open storefronts where people can play the games. This week, the bill will be under consideration in the House.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Leon Lott has let it be known that he wants all sweepstakes machines out of Richland County immediately. Today, his deputies will begin sweeping the county in search of the machines and will arrest anyone caught using them or operating them, Lott said.
“They can’t say they haven’t been warned,” Lott said.
Sweepstakes games have spread across South Carolina in the past year as operators argue that a loophole in the state’s gambling law allows them. The operators compare their games to McDonald’s Monopoly promotion, saying customers pay for a product such as phone cards or copying services and then get to play video games for a chance to win prizes.
They also point to a measure in the state’s gambling laws that says businesses with beer and wine permits can hold promotional sweepstakes.
Lott is not alone in his insistence that the sweepstakes games are illegal.
State Attorney General Alan Wilson and State Law Enforcement Chief Mark Keel have deemed them illegal as well. Both have said there is no loophole but have asked the Legislature to clarify the law so sweepstakes operators no longer have that excuse to open their doors.
In the past year, SLED has confiscated more than 1,100 sweepstakes machines, Keel said. His agents, who work with lawyers from the Attorney General’s office, have not lost a case when they’ve asked magistrates to rule specific machines illegal.
The move to close the loophole moved surprisingly fast this month through the state Senate.
Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, the bill’s sponsor and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the bill benefitted from a blank calendar. He was able to shepherd the bill quickly through committee and then put it out for a vote by the entire Senate, where it passed 40-2.
That swift, decisive approval sent a message that South Carolina does not want to return to the old days when there were video poker machines in every bar, restaurant and convenience store, Martin said.
“The policy of the state is we’re not going to let video poker come back,” he said of the machines the state banned in 2000.
South Carolina’s gaming industry has a notorious history of hiring high-powered lobbyists to influence votes. Lobbyists are on the payroll for gaming companies but, thus far have not done much to slow the bill.
“In some ways, it may have caught them flat-footed that it moved as fast as it did,” Martin said.
But both the Senate and the House have to approve a bill in the same session, and the bill still has to wind its way through the House. And even though the House passed a similar bill in 2012, it’s a new year, he said.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.