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Iowa legislature calls for removal of retail slot machines

DES MOINES, Iowa (BP)–In a rare move, the Iowa House and Senate have called for the removal of 6,000 slot machine-like lottery devices installed at more than 2,800 retail locations, and the state’s governor has said he will sign the bill into law.

The Iowa Lottery TouchPlay machines, which are common at grocery stores, taverns, convenience stores, truck stops and bowling alleys throughout the state, have generated $212 million in sales since July, according to The Des Moines Register.

Legislators argued that gambling had spread beyond what they had intended when the go-ahead was given for the lottery expansion in 2001 and that lottery officials had misled them regarding what the machines would look like.

Observers said the machines had become more attractive to children than anticipated, drawing their attention with buttons and flashing lights. Their easy accessibility made them more tempting than other forms of gambling, especially for problem gamblers.

Responding to a surge of public opinion against the machines, the Senate voted 40-10 on March 13 to give businesses 45 days from the ban’s enactment to remove them, and the House voted 80-18 the next day on a similar measure.

“We deserve to stand up and say we made a mistake. We have an obligation to fix that mistake,” Sen. Mary Lundby, a Republican, said.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack who is scheduled to return from a trade mission trip to India March 19, is expected to sign the bill as early as next week.

“I believe the legislators felt in good faith they were expressing the will of their constituents, and obviously … I respect that and the bill’s going to get signed,” Vilsack, a Democrat, said.

Jimmy Barrentine, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Iowa, commended lawmakers for their stance on the issue.

“It is my personal view that this is yet another example of the historical commitment of Iowa’s lawmakers and elected officials to diligently seek the highest public good and to do so in a spirit of collaboration and deliberation that rises above partisan political interests,” he said. “Once again it is my opinion that Iowa’s elected leaders have proven themselves to be as wise and as good as the people they have been chosen to represent.”

The legislature’s move could pose an economic problem for Iowa, The Register reported, because after prizes are paid out, the state receives 24 percent of the profits, which would total an estimated $40 million this year. Also, businesses stand to lose more than $200 million in the first year of the ban and $350 million in the second year, TouchPlay supporters contend, because of the high prices they’ve invested in the program.

But the state attorney general’s office said the government has “strong defenses” against any potential lawsuits from investors calling for damage payments.

Lundby suggested using the money already collected from TouchPlay machines — estimated at $20 to $25 million — for use as refunds to investors.

“It is my prayer that God will bless and grant financial health to the business owners, managers and employees of the business establishments affected by this decision,” Barrentine added. “They work long hours under circumstances that are sometimes difficult and even dangerous as they give themselves to the business of serving their communities and their customers.”

Under the proposed law, all TouchPlay machines currently in operation would have to be removed in 45 days, The Register said, and a new excise tax amounting to nearly 90 percent of net revenue would go into effect on any machines left in place.

Charles Hurley, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center, told Baptist Press the legislature’s move was the “first significant victory in reversing the expansion of gambling since it was legalized in Iowa in the 1980s.”

But he said it is naïve to believe the decision was brought about by anti-gambling groups.

“I think it was primarily because of the casinos who saw these lottery slot machines as competition, and they went all-out and spent millions and millions of dollars on lobbying and probably under-the-table contributions to key legislators,” Hurley said. “I think it’s great that the pro-family, anti-gambling forces did turn out. We had a huge response from our constituency, but we’ve done that in the past and it was like a drop in the bucket in the face of these millionaire casinos.”

The casinos still “hold the trump cards,” Hurley said, because they’re doing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of expansion in the state, adding five new casinos just this year.

“So it’s not like we’ve turned the tide. It’s that this was heavy competition for the casinos,” he said.

More than 4,000 e-mails from Iowa Family Policy Center supporters reached lawmakers the weekend prior to the votes, Hurley said, so pro-family groups may have played a role even if casinos were largely in charge.

“There’s too much money in gambling, and until the behind-the-scenes dirty money that’s driving this is exposed through a scandal, I don’t foresee any re-criminalization of gambling,” he told BP.
With reporting by Richard Nations.

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  • Erin Roach