COLUMBIA - South Carolina senators on Tuesday endorsed a bill meant to legalize friendly games of poker in people's homes, but opponents contend the potential loopholes could usher in outright gambling.
The measure, sent to the Senate floor by a 15-6 vote, would replace the state's 1802 antigambling laws that, if read literally, ban any games with cards or dice.
The laws are selectively enforced and the government has no business telling people they can't play games in their own homes, said Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell.
"Strike this up as a victory for liberty," said McConnell, R-Charleston, a co-sponsor and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Constituents want police to protect them from criminals, he said, "not policing what they play on their kitchen table."
Legislators have tried to change the laws since a much-publicized 2006 raid on a poker game in Mount Pleasant, where 22 poker players were arrested.
But their attempts have failed repeatedly, as some legislators and faith-based groups feared any change would usher in far more than kitchen-table poker, as they invoke the rise of video poker. It took a decade of fighting and numerous court cases before the Legislature managed to ban in 2000 what many called the "crack cocaine of gambling."
Sen. Chip Campsen reminded his colleagues that a two-word change to state law in 1986 allowed the video poker industry to sue its way into existence.
"This is not speculation. It's history," said Campsen, R-Isle of Palms. "We need to be really careful with every dot."
Oran Smith of the Palmetto Family Council said the lack of a limit on what players could bet was especially concerning. He advocates a penny-ante clause that sets the per-hand bet low. McConnell and others argued enforcement would be a problem.
Sen. Larry Martin countered that, while he knows players would skirt the law - as they do now - the state doesn't need to approve of it.
"This sanctions big-time gambling," said Martin, R-Pickens.
The chairman of a subcommittee that held hearings across the state during the off-session said the panel tried to cover any loopholes. The proposal specifies that poker players must have a legitimate social relationship - in an attempt to prevent games between strangers - and the last paragraph specifically bars electronic gambling machines, slot machines and video poker.
Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet, chastised some of his fellow Republicans for railing against the so-called "nanny state" when it comes to federal health care, for example, but opposing the in-home social gambling bill.
"I see throughout Senate chambers the flags that say 'Don't Tread on Me,'" he said of the miniature flags on many Republicans' desks. "You say our Founding Fathers didn't want so much government intrusion into personal lives. Yet, you're the same group who wants to regulate what people do in their own homes."
Opponents spent the bulk of two hours poking holes in the measure, saying, for example, that homes could be turned into casinos and membership clubs created to suffice as a social relationship. Many senators said they'd try to amend the measure on the Senate floor to address the various possibilities.
The state Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality of poker games. McConnell said legislators need to define and regulate gambling before the ruling.
In the Mount Pleasant raid, most of those ticketed for illegal gambling settled their cases by paying fines. But a handful fought the charge. A local judge found the men guilty, but a Circuit Court judge reversed that decision. Former Attorney General Henry McMaster's appeal is before the state Supreme Court.
Last week, the same Senate committee endorsed legislation letting voters decide if schools, churches and other nonprofit groups should be able to hold raffles. Currently, the only legal raffle in South Carolina is the state lottery.