Columbia, SC — ON MONDAY, the Senate Republican Caucus tweeted out the news that “Gov. Haley signs bill banning sweepstakes cafes,” and I assumed she had another one of those ceremonial bill signings that she loves so much that the Legislature barred her from wasting fuel on the state plane to fly around the state holding them.
After all, it had been more than three weeks since she actually signed the bill, which closed what gambling operators had snookered a handful of judges into believing was a loophole in the law that bans video gambling along with the machines that the operators had pulled out of mothballs under the veneer of an innocent law that lets McDonald’s run its sweepstakes promotions.
It turns out there was nothing ceremonial about the signing — or newsworthy. The article the caucus directed followers to was from March 22, when the governor affixed her name to the actual bill, and turned it into law, marking the second time in 14 years that our state has acted to rein in video gambling.
It’s easy to understand why the caucus would be promoting non-news news. It’s that whole tree falling in a forest with nobody around conundrum: The bill that makes it clear that the “sweepstakes” ruse really was just that slipped into law with no bang and less than a whimper. If you blinked, you missed it.
The State, The Greenville News and several smaller papers ran briefs on inside pages when the House gave it preliminary approval, while Charleston’s Post and Courier had a complete news article to that effect, but none of us doubled back the next day to say it received final approval — or the day after that to say Gov. Nikki Haley had signed it. The Post and Courier even ran an editorial urging the Legislature to pass and the governor to sign the bill — six days after she did so. Here and elsewhere, the first news that it was law came a week after the fact, and then it was buried inside coverage of the arrest, under the old law, of someone who had been hawking his “Magic Minutes” scheme.
I can’t explain why the passage went largely unnoticed, particularly since it was the first — and so far only — significant law the General Assembly has managed to pass this entire year. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame, because the good guys don’t win very often at the State House, and this was one of those rare wins.
Our Legislature is by definition conservative: It is designed to preserve the status quo. Particularly in the Senate, it takes extraordinary effort and commitment to change the law unless the change has unanimous support. Not near-unanimous. Unanimous.
People with bad motives tend to have that commitment and exert that extraordinary effort, so they push through bills that open our state to video gambling or to the nation’s nuclear or chemical or hazardous waste, that dole out special tax breaks to special friends. Most legislators would like to toughen our ethics laws, or make our government work more rationally, or make our highways safer or improve our state in a hundred other ways that won’t benefit them personally, but their desire to do that isn’t usually as strong as opponents’ desire to stop them. So they fail.
After letting the 2012 legislative session get by without addressing the rapidly re-emerging menace of video gambling — despite the pleas and warnings from the state’s top law enforcement officers — rookie Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin decided he wouldn’t let that happen again this year. He pre-filed the bill that his committee had passed last year, called a subcommittee together to vet it before the session started, held a full committee meeting on the bill the first day of the session and had it reported out and ready for full Senate debate by the second day. The Senate passed it 40-2 a week later — too early in the session for the two opponents to use the usual dilatory tactics to kill it.
The House wasn’t as fast — it doesn’t have to be, because it’s much harder for the minority to kill bills there — but it sent the bill to the governor barely more than two months later, she signed it the next day, and it took effect immediately.
Sweepstakes operators insisted their “games” weren’t gambling, and the bill simply makes it clear that the sweepstakes exemption in the law does not make legal anything that is illegal under the gambling law — that is, gambling. Think of it as calling their bluff, with criminal penalties.
Since we banished video gambling in 2000, the gambling operators and their lawyers have never stopped looking for ways to trick judges into letting them ignore the law. This new law won’t stop that. What it does is shut down the first of those efforts that had been clever enough to fool a significant number of judges.
That’s no small thing. The industry grew itself into a $3 billion-a-year behemoth by ignoring the laws we had to limit its growth, and manipulating our courts to let it keep growing while it filed dilatory challenges. The Legislature ignored all this, and let the industry get so big that it was able to take out a governor and nearly take over the Legislature itself.
This time, that didn’t happen. And that’s a big deal. Worth celebrating.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571.