Originally created 02/08/98

Ban on video poker gets closer to passing



COLUMBIA -- The odds in the South Carolina House seem to be shifting against the almost $2 billion video gambling business.

In a flurry of activity last week, the powerful House Ways and Means Committee approved Gov. David Beasley's proposed statewide ban on video gambling, one day after the Senate Finance Committee came close to doing the same.

"We had a great step forward," said Mr. Beasley, a conservative Republican who wants some type of ban approved before the November gubernatorial election.

But senators who side with the industry say they have enough votes to stop any ban.

It takes 29 votes in the 46-member Senate to stop a filibuster -- a favorite Senate weapon on controversial items -- and any bill that doesn't get through before June's session end is dead.

"Video poker got 22 solid votes in the Senate in support, which means there's no way for (gambling opponents) to do anything," said Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, a video-gambling advocate.

Even if a ban is placed in the state budget, it would need 31 Senate votes to pass, Mr. Ford said. Basically, the Democrat said, "the governor's just whistling Dixie."

As late as October, Mr. Beasley was saying he didn't think a ban was politically possible. Then he said he sensed things were changing and proposed the ban in his Jan. 21 State of the State speech.

Still, Mr. Beasley said after the Republican-dominated House committee's 23-2 vote in his favor, "I think two weeks ago folks would have given the odds weren't too good that we would have had a favorable vote out of the Ways and Means Committee."

Why the change? Credit "lobbyist" Mr. Beasley and a grassroots conservative Christian push aimed at state representatives looking to be re-elected in November.

Monday night, Mr. Beasley was the guest on a special edition of James Dobson's Focus on the Family radio program.

Mr. Dobson read off the names and phone numbers of Ways and Means Committee members and urged listeners to flood them with phone calls.

Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council, also urged his backers to contact key committee members to support a ban.

"All of us have been swamped by calls, and most of them were against video gambling," said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, a Ways and Means Committee member.

Sen. Warren Giese, R-Columbia, held up a stack of letters during the Senate Finance Committee meeting.

"There in my mail for this morning were 60 letters, obviously an organized effort to influence," Mr. Giese said. "Yesterday, there were 200 telephone calls -- none of these are from my district -- but 59 letters, 200 telephone calls?"

Video gambling has grown so much that even people who were ambivalent on the issue are now heeding calls to ban the industry, gambling opponents said.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, South Carolina gamblers plunked $1.8 million into the machines. By the end of the fiscal year, the number of machines had grown by about 50 percent to 31,050 -- or one for every 121 people in the state.

People who lost money in the machines have sued in federal court, saying operators flout South Carolina's laws limiting payouts and losses.

State Attorney General Charlie Condon has joined that legal attack, alleging video gambling is an illegal lottery under the state constitution.

A federal judge has decided to ask the state Supreme Court, which until now has largely ducked the lottery issue, to decide the question. U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson will begin hearings Monday to provide the factual record to send to the justices.

Gambling opponents say they know the industry can outspend them on lobbyists and advertising. "This movement is totally grassroots," said Gary Karr, Mr. Beasley's spokesman.

And a committee vote hardly means the issue is settled.

"It's too early to characterize it one way or the other," gambling lobbyist Dwight Drake said, reviewing the week.

Lurking in the wings is an effort to replace an outright ban with a statewide vote on the issue. There were enough votes to do it in the Ways and Means Committee, but Chairman Henry Brown, R-Hanahan, and former House Speaker Bob Sheheen, D-Camden, said it couldn't be included in the budget.

"You either want the machines or you don't want the machines," Mr. Brown said. "If you want a referendum, you're just skirting the issue."

Still, expect the referendum to come up again in the House this week. "We'll just have to pick up out battle then," said Rep. Mark Kelley, R-Myrtle Beach.

Mr. Kelley said he had enough votes in the Ways and Means meeting to convert Mr. Beasley's ban to a referendum, but Mr. Brown adjourned before the bill could be changed.

Mr. Kelley convinced Mr. Brown to recall the committee to consider the referendum, but that was canceled after Mr. Kelley discovered one of his referendum supporters had left for the day.

Video-gambling advocates say people should have a chance to decide one more time whether to ban gambling.

They take heart from a 1994 vote in which 12 counties banned payoffs -- a vote later overturned by the state Supreme Court. Statewide, however, 58 percent of the voters that year approved of video gambling.