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South Carolina ruling spells doom for state’s 34,000 video poker mach

COLUMBIA, S.C. (BP)–The South Carolina Supreme Court has struck down a state referendum on video gambling and ruled that the games would be banned effective July 1.
Churches and pro-family groups rejoiced over the Oct. 14 decision that likely spells the death knell for what has become $2.8-billion-a-year industry in South Carolina. The court’s stunning action provides Christian and other pro-family groups with momentum heading toward next year’s state lottery vote, leaders say.
“It was a little bit of a shock, but the unanimous court ruling was a great ruling for South Carolina,” said Mike Hamlet, pastor of the First Baptist Church of North Spartanburg and immediate past president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. “I believe the ruling was confirmation of what would have happened in the referendum if it had taken place. We would have won.
“People are starting to wake up and say that there is something meaningful to us besides greed. The people of South Carolina were ready to stand up and say, ‘You know, we’re not willing to do anything for money and we’re still a state that holds some principles and values,’” Hamlet said.
“This victory, along with the results in Alabama [a statewide vote Oct. 12 defeating a state lottery], gives us a real boost going into the fight against the lottery next year. I think the attitude nationwide is you can’t stop gambling, but this means the lottery is not a done deal. This encourages our people.”
The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that a Nov. 2 referendum on video gambling was unconstitutional because it delegated lawmaking powers of the legislature to the general public. But the court upheld another part of the law that established the referendum, ruling video poker games illegal as of July 1.
“The issue is over — dead,” House Speaker David Wilkins, told The State newspaper in Columbia. “By this time next year, video poker will be nothing more than a memory.”
Some observers say the ruling will reduce the state’s 34,000 video poker machines to mere contraband after July 1 and could result in the closing of up to 40 percent of the 2,500 convenience stores in the state that have the machines.
“It is a great decision and a victory for the people of South Carolina and certainly for Southern Baptists,” said an elated Joe Mack, the South Carolina Baptist Convention’s director of Christian life concerns.
Mack said each church organized groups that implemented a three-pronged approach that included voter registration, education and participation. More than 100,000 new voters had registered over the past two months, he noted. The state convention developed action packs that contained materials ranging from bulletin inserts and sermon outlines to prayer calendars and voter information packets.
“We have 1,950 churches in the state and I think every one of them did everything we asked them to do,” Mack said.
Video gambling operators said they would try to convince lawmakers to reopen the debate in January and to rewrite the law for a nonbinding referendum in the spring. Poker operators might file lawsuits on the grounds that the ban would take millions in personal investment without fair compensation.
However, some legal analysts say winning such lawsuits is unlikely because a poker license, which operators are required to purchase from the state, is not property, but a privilege.
“There has been so much deception about his whole thing,” Mike Hagins, general manager of WQXL, a Christian radio station in Columbia told The State. “I’m worried about it staying in the legislature. The other side is relentless, and you can still smell the money in the air.”
But political experts say there is little chance the state legislature will attempt to change the law to revive the controversial video poker games that became legal through a little-noticed budget amendment in 1986. Gov. Jim Hodges, who staked his political future on a future state lottery and was elected with the help of gambling money, said video poker issue was dead and would not reach the legislature floor.
“The votes are not there,” he was quoted as saying.
Some political observers say the court ruling is vindication for former Gov. David Beasley, a Southern Baptist who was defeated in his re-election bid by Hodges last year. Beasley opposed a lottery and called video games the “crack cocaine of gambling.”
“Now Hodges has dropped them [the gamblers] like a hot rock,” said Hamlet.
Both sides on the video poker issue had inundated South Carolinians in recent weeks with television and radio ads, but anti-gambling forces appeared to be gaining strength as religious leaders rallied supporters. They argued that the games take a toll of poor and working families.
“We have battled this industry for years,” said Glenn Stanton, executive director of the Palmetto Family Council in Columbia. “It has lied, used deception, power, money and political influence to survive. It had a deep bag of dirty trips and it’s used every one of them.”
Stanton blasted the video poker industry for contributing to the state’s bankruptcy, divorce, suicide and crime rates in the state.
“The footprint that video poker has left on our state is deep, ugly and devastating,” he said. “Video poker was an ugly houseguest that people wanted out of our state. Video poker is dead in this state.”
Stanton said even though the court killed video poker in the state, it was pressure from South Carolina churches that brought pressure to bear on the pro-gambling groups and caused them to miscalculate and take their case to the South Carolina Supreme Court.
“It seemed like every church in the state was motivated to the hilt and it was that pressure that caused them to lose their presence of mind,” Stanton said. “It wouldn’t have happened if the church had not mobilized and been the salt and light Jesus has called us to be.”
A poll commissioned by six South Carolina newspapers in September found 61 percent of those surveyed opposing video poker, with 16 percent favoring the games, and 23 percent undecided. Mack said he had seen polls in recent days showing South Carolina voters opposing video poker by a 4-1 margin.

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  • Don Hinkle