Originally created 12/18/97

Video gambling onslaught begins in state Legislature



COLUMBIA -- A state senator and a state representative want South Carolina voters to choose whether video gambling should be outlawed. Another representative wants the video machines moved 1,000 feet away from schools, churches and public parks.

A month before the 1998 legislative session begins, lawmakers have launched their attack against video gambling, prefiling several bills that would more tightly regulate or eliminate the $2.7 billion industry in South Carolina.

Video gambling has become a major issue in the 1998 elections, with Republican Gov. David Beasley and Democratic challenger James Hodges jockeying for position months ahead of time.

State Attorney General Charlie Condon also has asked the state Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court to decide whether video gambling constitutes a lottery, which specifically is banned by state law.

Many lawmakers have said they would rather hear a final decision from the courts before taking any action. Some, however, are going ahead with their efforts.

Two powerful Democrats, Sen. John Drummond of Ninety Six and Rep. Robert Sheheen of Camden, have introduced bills to allow counties to vote on whether to ban video gambling.

Drummond's bill calls for a statewide referendum in November on whether to abolish all video gambling payouts, The Greenville News reported.

"I really believe this curse on society is recognized by the majority of South Carolinians, and I believe if we give them a chance to vote on it, they'll vote to stop it," said Drummond, the Senate Finance Committee chairman.

Sheheen, former House Speaker and a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, wants for a constitutional amendment to allow counties to vote to ban operation or possession of video gambling machines.

Fred Collins, one of the state's largest video gambling operators, thinks another vote would be a good idea and isn't worried about the results. "People are voting for video poker every day when they put their money into the machines," Collins said.

Twelve counties voted in 1994 to prohibit video gambling payouts, but the ban is on hold while the industry challenges it in court.

In addition:

-- Rep. Bubba Cromer, I-Columbia, prefiled a bill that would require video gambling machines to move 1,000 feet away from churches, schools, playgrounds and parks. The current law requires a 500-foot separation.

-- Rep. Jake Knotts Jr., R-West Columbia, wants to increase the maximum county and city license fee on video gambling machines from $360 to $400.

-- Rep. Robert Walker, R-Landrum, wants to give counties and cities unlimited business licensing authorities on video gambling machines by getting rid of a provision keeping the license fee below half of the March 1956 amount. Walker said that's $12.50.

-- Walker also wants video gambling banned by having legislators delete all of the legal provisions allowing the industry to exist. "That's the way to eliminate video poker, to eliminate all of the statutes that allow it to exist," Walker said.

Fifteen other House members have signed onto that bill, including Speaker Pro Tem Terry Haskins, R-Greenville.

On top of that, lawmakers still have to consider the 17 bills dealing with video gambling left over from last year's Legislature from, including putting a 50 percent tax on video gambling income for education.

Only three bills dealing with video gambling got through the Legislature last year.