Politics & Government

EXCLUSIVE: SC residents favor legalizing casinos

Dice bounce on the craps table on the SunCruz casino boat off the coast of Horry County. Gambling is legal on the boat after it sails into international waters.
Dice bounce on the craps table on the SunCruz casino boat off the coast of Horry County. Gambling is legal on the boat after it sails into international waters. File photograph

Nearly seven in 10 South Carolinians like the idea of legalizing casinos to pay to repair the state’s crumbling roads, according to a new poll.

Those poll results have energized pro-casino lawmakers, who say voters should be allowed to decide the issue. But they fail to convince powerful Republicans, who control the Legislature.

Sixty-eight percent of S.C. residents favor letting a limited number of casinos to open if the state’s share of the revenue is set aside for roads and infrastructure needs, a Winthrop Poll question asked for The State newspaper shows.

Thirty percent were opposed to the idea – proposed in the S.C. House – while 2 percent were unsure or refused to answer.

“That is literally earth shattering,” said state Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, who authored the casino bill. “What South Carolinians said in this poll is that they are tired of the Republicans digging into their pockets and taking their tax money when there is another alternative.”

However, GOP lawmakers – who control the S.C. House and hold a majority of the seats in the state Senate – remain staunchly opposed to the idea. They say more gambling will bring more crime and addiction, and question the poll’s findings. National pollsters incorrectly predicted Democrat Hillary Clinton would cruise to a presidential victory last year, they note.

“I don’t think gambling is a solution to our problems,” said state Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. “It likely creates even more problems. I can’t imagine that 68 percent of my constituents would support that.”

Tough sledding

Rutherford’s proposal, unlikely to go far this year, would pave the way for South Carolina to join the 40 states nationwide that allow casino gambling.

Supporters say resort-styled casinos in Myrtle Beach, south of Charlotte and just across the Georgia border from Savannah could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue each year for the state. That money could pay to fix the state’s crumbling roads – a legislative priority.

If the long-shot proposal becomes law, South Carolina would join a wave of states that have legalized casino gambling over the past decade to address budget woes.

“These poll numbers suggest Republicans need to get a grip on what the rest of South Carolina is saying, which is that it’s time to move forward and do so in a progressive way,” Rutherford said.

But it’s a tough sell.

Rutherford’s proposal requires amending the state Constitution, meaning two-thirds of lawmakers in both State House chambers would have to sign off on giving the decision to voters in the next general election.

Getting that level of support will be difficult in a Legislature dominated by Republicans who object to gambling on moral grounds and doubt casino advocates’ revenue projections.

“We were just barely able to get enough (legislative) support to allow nonprofits to have raffles,” Massey said. “I just don’t think you’re going to have anywhere near the support needed to open casinos or turn the Grand Strand into Las Vegas.”

Instead, some Republicans say increasing the state’s gas tax, not gambling, is the most appropriate way to fix roads.

“State-sponsored gambling doesn’t encourage good citizenship,” said House Judiciary Committee chair Greg Delleney, R-Chester. “The state ought to be enhancing responsibility among its citizens, good conduct and moral conduct. That’s not gambling.”

Changing perception?

Polling suggests S.C. residents’ attitudes toward gambling are turning.

In an October 2014 Winthrop Poll, 47.3 percent of S.C. residents said they supported opening a limited number of gambling casinos. At that time, 47.3 percent opposed the idea.

Asked the same question this month – with no mention of how the revenue would be used – 54 percent of S.C. residents said they favor allowing casinos. Forty-two percent were against the idea. Three percent were unsure and 1 percent refused to answer.

Pledging to use casino revenues to fix roads increased support to 68 percent and reduced opposition to 30 percent.

“There’s been a seismic mind change over the last couple of years,” said Boyd Brown, a lobbyist who proposed legalizing casinos six years ago when he was a state legislator.

Casino backers say the poll numbers are encouraging. But they must persuade legislators to put the idea on the statewide ballot.

“Part of the Republican brand is free markets and getting the government to put decisions in the hands of its citizens,” Brown said. “This falls right in line with that ideology. All we’re asking, again, is to let the voters decide.”

Don’t count on that happening soon.

Some Republicans cast a wary eye at the poll results.

“After the last election, I don’t really have a great deal of confidence in polls,” Rep. Delleney said, referring to President Donald Trump’s surprise Election Day victory last November.

Delleney and Senate Majority Leader Massey also rebuffed calls to leave the decision up to the voters, noting South Carolina’s state government is a republic – not a democracy.

“People hire us to make those decisions,” Delleney said, referring to legislators. “That’s what we should do.

“We’re not California.”

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks

Legalizing casinos

A Winthrop Poll asked South Carolinians if they favored permitting a limited number of casinos in South Carolina? Here’s what they said:

Favor: 54%

Oppose: 42%

Not sure/refused: 4%

Support was even stronger if the state revenues generated were earmarked to pay for roads and infrastructure.

Favor: 68%

Oppose: 30%

Not sure/refused: 2%

SOURCE: Winthrop Poll

Report card for Haley

South Carolinians polled this month gave Nikki Haley a passing grade as the state’s 116th governor. Close to a B-, to be exact, according to the latest Winthrop Poll.

Asked to grade Haley’s job, 29 percent of S.C. residents – and 44 percent of GOP-learning respondents – gave the Republican an A. Thirty-two percent gave Haley a B, with 25 percent giving her a C, 7 percent giving her an D and 6 percent giving her an F.

Haley’s grade-point-average, on a 4.0 scale, came out to 2.76.

Republicans gave the now-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations a 3.24 GPA, while Democrats assigned her a 2.34 score.

The results:

All

GOP

(including leaners)

Democrats

(including leaners)

A

29%

44%

15%

B

32%

38%

27%

C

25%

13%

38%

D

7%

1%

10%

F

6%

4%

8%

Don’t know

1%

0

2%

Refused

0

NA

1%

SOURCE: Winthrop Poll

A fix for the state’s pension crisis?

S.C. residents say they prefer a combination of proposed fixes for the state’s ailing pension system, according to the latest Winthrop Poll.

Thirteen percent of S.C. residents want to solve the crisis by requiring state workers to pay more into the system from their paychecks.

Ten percent said the state should cut some service it now provides to cover the cost, and 10 percent advocate raising taxes to cover the shortfall.

But the majority – 56 percent – said they want a mix of at least two of those proposals.

The results:

All

GOP

(including leaners)

Democrats

(including leaners)

Workers give more

13%

12%

9%

Cut services

10%

12%

6%

Tax increase

10%

4%

17%

Combination

56%

56%

60%

Something else

3%

5%

2%

Don’t know/not sure

6%

8%

4%

Refused

3%

2%

2%

SOURCE: Winthrop Poll

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