A video poker revival in South Carolina?

Last winter as the Legislature took its first steps to outlaw Internet sweepstakes games, an experienced lawyer with the S.C. Attorney General’s office warned lawmakers that video poker barons always have another card up their sleeves.

Just months after that warning, a bill filed late during the legislative session has some worried the next card may have been played.

The bill, sponsored by S.C. Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Beaufort, was introduced, referred to a committee and even received a hearing late in the legislative session. Lawmakers will be able to pick up on the bill where they left off when they return in January.

Herbkersman said the bill would not allow the return of video gambling. Instead, he said, he is filing it on behalf of his constituents in the Sun City retirement community who have complained that the state’s gambling laws are too restrictive.

“We want to get ladies in Sun City to be able to go in the clubhouse, have a glass of wine and play cribbage,” Herbkersman said. “It’s not a gambling law. It’s a personal freedom law.”

Others who have battled video poker for years said some of the same industry players who have been around for years were at the spring hearing, leading to concerns that the bill is another back-door attempt to bring back video poker. This summer, Herbkersman and others who support the bill will meet with State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel to discuss it.

Meanwhile, police across the state continue their efforts to stamp out video gambling that popped up a couple of years ago when game operators argued they had found a loophole in state law that allowed their machines.

At iInternet sweepstakes parlors, customers paid for a product such as phone cards or copying services and then got to play video games for a chance to win prizes, including cash. They said their games were no different from McDonald’s Monopoly promotion. They also pointed to a measure in the state’s gambling laws that says businesses with beer and wine permits can hold promotional sweepstakes.

Law enforcement, including Keel and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, said no loophole existed but urged legislators to rewrite the law to end any debate. Legislators complied, and Gov. Nikki Haley signed the bill into law in March. The warning that the poker industry always will try another tactic came during a Senate committee hearing as legislators moved to close the perceived loophole.

Since then, the sweepstakes parlors, which mostly operated out of strip malls and only served the purpose of gambling, have vanished. Police have reported finding machines scattered across the state in bars, convenience stores and other locations.

SLED agents seized 1,519 machines between July 1, 2012, and June 26, said, said Thom Berry, the agency’s spokesman. Wilson’s attorneys prosecuted the cases.

Sheriff Leon Lott said sweepstakes parlors vanished from Richland County after he raided one that had opened in the spring of 2012 on Sparkleberry Road Extension. But individual machines occasionally are found in businesses across the county, he said.

“Every now and then, someone will try it,” Lott said. “The reason they don’t go away is because there is so much money in it.”

Last week, the Columbia Police Department reported it had seized 22 machines from several businesses in Columbia. Most of those machines were called Palmetto Gold or Chess Challenge II, according to incident reports. At one Farrow Road convenience store, the owner told police that customers played the games for a chance to win tickets that could be redeemed for groceries and beverages at the store, according to a May 29 incident report. The machines and $22 were taken by police.

In the past week, Adam Whitsett, an assistant attorney general, has traveled to Pickens County, Georgetown and Simpsonville to argue before magistrates that video machines seized by SLED are illegal gambling devices.

The newest games

The latest incarnation are machines called “Palmetto Skill” or “Palmetto Plus.”

These games simulate slot machines and advertise jackpots that build as more people play. Operators argue that these machines are games of skill – therefore legal in South Carolina – because players can replace symbols on the board, perhaps leading to a win.

But in a court brief filed in Oconee County, Whitsett argued, “No amount of skill or knowledge can win a player these top prizes unless the machine randomly generates boards containing these symbols.” He wrote that the game owners had gone to “great lengths to violate the spirit and intent of South Carolina’s anti-gaming and anti-gambling laws.” He also wrote the opposing side’s arguments in support of the games were “creative, yet absurd.”

As for the pending legislation, it could be considered once the Legislature reconvenes in January. Or, it could quietly die in a subcommittee. But there are groups interested in seeing its passage.

The bill includes language that would allow coin-operated games that pay winnings through tokens, tickets, points or vouchers. It also would award players with free replays or allow them to win prizes where the value did not exceed $5 per play. The ability to provide some sort of payout worries those who oppose video poker.

Steve Fooshe, a lobbyist for the S.C. Entertainment Law Consortium, a group that supports the law, said the bill is not an attempt to restore video poker.

“Oh no, it’s the furthest thing from it,” he said. “We aren’t supportive of video poker.”

Instead, the group wants clear laws on what type of machines are legal, he said.

The bill includes a provision modeled after Georgia’s laws, which directs a government agency or board to license and register video games after determining whether they are legal or illegal. South Carolina needs a similar system, Fooshe said.

Going forward

Representatives from the S.C. attorney general’s office could not comment on the pending legislation because it is against office policy to comment on bills that are not part of Wilson’s legislative agenda, said Mark Powell, the office’s spokesman.

Herbkersman said he is looking forward to meeting with Keel at SLED to discuss the legislation and its intent. No one is trying to bring back video poker, he said.

“Anyone who wants to do video poker can do it right now on the Internet,” he said.

Herbkersman believes people have a right to host poker games in their homes and play cards at community clubhouses while sipping on wine or beer. Those games shouldn’t be banned just because some people’s gambling habits get out of control, he said.

“It’s like saying we’re not going to let people drive cars because they might go over the speed limit,” Herbkersman said.

But Lott, who has not read the bill, said he would not be surprised if it somehow created another opening for video poker’s return.

“We’ll just sit back and wait for their next move,” Lott said. “It’s like a chess game or checkers. It’s been that way for years.”