Bolton: Let’s not forget why SC dumped video poker

Associate EditorJanuary 27, 2013 

— THE FACT that video poker hijacked our political process, controlled many in our Legislature, turned out an incumbent governor and habitually disregarded our laws is plenty enough reason to quickly shut down the gambling industry’s attempt to reconstitute the scourge in the form of Internet sweepstakes games before that genie crawls completely back out of the bottle.

But some lawmakers oppose closing a so-called loophole that operators have been using to integrate video gambling back into our state’s culture. Fortunately, the majority of the S.C. Senate had the wisdom to pass a bill making it clear that the games are still illegal. The matter is now before the House, which should follow suit.

If the above reasons aren’t enough for House members to agree to shut down this newest iteration of what was aptly termed the “crack cocaine of gambling,” then perhaps it would be helpful for them to remember some of the other reasons this state decided to outlaw video poker.

Have we forgotten 10-day-old Joy Baker, who died in August 1997 as she lay in a sweltering car for 7 1/2 hours while her mother sat inside a casino playing video poker? I know. It was Gail Baker’s fault for leaving her daughter in the car; and she pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. But make no mistake. Video poker was an accomplice in Joy’s death.

And while that was the most extreme example of video poker’s toll, the fact is that electronic gambling slowly ate away at the fabric of families and communities across our state.

Have we forgotten the manager of a York County residential treatment program for pathological gamblers who recounted how video poker overcame Palmetto State citizens?

One man who lost $700 in 75 minutes was so addicted that he begged $200 from his mother and $300 from his dad and — you guessed it — gambled that away, too.

Then there was the man who, facing foreclosure, pawned his TV and VCR, but not to save his home: He lost the cash at the altar of video poker.

Finally, there was the retiree trying to cope with the death of her husband by immersing herself in video poker; I don’t know whether she ever dealt with her sadness, but she lost her life savings in six months.

Have we forgotten how much money this state spent trying to do the impossible — regulate an industry that refused to obey laws and regularly tied up the court system to ensure that it didn’t have to follow the rules?

Have we forgotten the money lost by employers due to gambling-related absenteeism, reduced productivity and theft?

Or how about the mounds of bad debt and bankruptcies and foreclosures suffered by families and individuals? Or the tax dollars wasted on court costs for gambling-related criminal trials, civil cases and divorces?

Sweepstakes operators have been trying to reintroduce this scourge into our culture by embedding it into what appear to be legitimate enterprises such as coffee shops and business service centers. We know better. The centers attempt to get around state law by selling phone cards or Internet time and giving customers credits to play video poker or slots on a computer. The prizes include cash.

Those who support this latest iteration of video poker, including some lawmakers, try to pass it off as a harmless promotional tool, even comparing it with McDonald’s Monopoly promotion.

While the operators have been able to find a few judges who would sign off on the computerized machines that are the centerpiece of their enterprise, state Attorney General Alan Wilson and SLED Chief Mark Keel have rightly argued from the start that these games are illegal. As a matter of fact, they declare that there is no loophole — just a misreading of the law by a few judges taken in by the video poker attorneys. Just the same, they want lawmakers to clarify the law so sweepstakes operators can no longer even suggest that there is a legitimate basis for them to operate.

Some local governments and law enforcement — Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson and Richland Sheriff Leon Lott are among them — have been working to shut the business down in their communities.

While they may be effective to some degree, this battle ultimately won’t be won until lawmakers make it clear that Internet sweepstakes is illegal.

Let’s call it what it is and give it the treatment that it deserves: outright gambling, plain and simple. This is nothing but video poker, the scourge that poisoned our politics and corrupted our morals in the name of greed. Lest we forget.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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