South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon's surprise declaration last week that video poker payoffs are unlawful apparently sprang from frustration.
The advisory came down one day after Condon ripped the state Supreme Court for refusing to hear a Lancaster County lawsuit that might have resolved whether video poker is a lottery and allowed under the state's constitution.
It also came on the heels of a front page Wall Street Journal story about the "Bible Belt" state's inability to control the exploding video poker industry and its ugly stepchild, gambling addiction -- hardly the image South Carolina wants to project to industrial, business and civic leaders across the nation.
Many local law-enforcers share Condon's frustration, but they're not about to start making arrests. As North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones points out, his city is strongly opposed to video poker but for now he's sticking with the high court's earlier ruling that criminal enforcement must be uniform. Jones figures arrests would only trigger a host of costly lawsuits against the city, and he's right.
Edgefield County Sheriff Billy Parker is even more blunt about Condon's advisory. The attorney general's opinion, Parker said, "is like mine, ain't much to it." Indeed, if legal attacks worked, video poker would have been put out of business long ago.
But at least Condon is expressing state leaders' widespread unhappiness with the industry and a willingness to try and do something about it. Even though the state Supreme Court won't soon decide the Lancaster case, it has said it will expedite a ruling on legislation passed this year that would permit the 12 counties that voted down video poker in 1994 to level crippling civil fines on the machines.
If that legislation passes high court muster, it could be the beginning of the end for video poker -- at least in communities that don't want it. But if the court holds that civil penalties, like criminal penalties, must be uniform across the state, then it'll be back to the drawing board next year.
Surely if constitutional loopholes prevent putting the games out of business, lawmakers -- at a minimum -- should step up the state's share of the take, now only at about $40 million, and regulatory controls to ensure gamblers get some kind of clue as to what the odds are when they pour money into the machines.
Gov. David Beasley and other state leaders are reluctant to go that route, fearing it would look like the state was "accepting" video poker as a way of life. Well, it is a way of life for many in our two-state region, and if Condon's advisory pushes the state toward dealing with that reality it will serve a useful purpose.
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