Originally created 05/26/98

Video gambling six days away from surviving another legislative session



COLUMBIA -- Despite six months of political threats, the state's $2 billion video gambling industry is about six days away from escaping another legislative session without any new government controls.

A ban on the industry -- pushed by GOP Gov. David Beasley -- seems destined to die, both in separate legislation in the Democrat-controlled Senate and in the state's $4.9 billion budget.

And legislators haven't even started talking about any proposed regulations on the industry. "I'll be ready to discuss that on Tuesday," said Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, one of the ban leaders. He would not comment further.

The Senate Finance Committee killed one proposed regulation earlier this year that would have put the state's approximately 500 video gambling malls out of business. There are only six legislative days left in this year's session, with lawmakers to leave Columbia on June 4.

Not that legislators can't push through bills quickly. A bill saying local governments cannot bar church-related activities at home was introduced on a Wednesday and was approved by both chambers the next Thursday.

There are more than 27 video gambling bills and resolutions still alive in the Legislature.

"If they want to sit down and get a gentleman's agreement on some kind of regulations, then we can do that," said Sen. Ernie Passailaigue, D-Charleston, who led the three-week Senate filibuster against the video gambling ban. "But if they keep playing games, we'll have nothing this year."

Lawmakers have only passed one piece of video gambling-related legislation since 1996 -- a bill to restore the results of a 1994 referendum that banned video poker payouts in 12 counties. That law has been held up in court by video poker operators.

The state Supreme Court is deciding whether the video gambling industry, expected to grow to almost $3 billion by 1999, is an illegal lottery. No one knows when the high court will rule.

Some lawmakers pinned their hopes on getting a video gambling ban through ins the state budget, but senators seem dead-set against the idea. "That battle is far from over," said House Majority Leader Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

But House Ways and Means Chairman Henry Brown, one of the budget conferees, didn't seem enthusiastic about fighting video poker in the budget. "I think we're kind of waiting on the courts to rule," said Brown, R-Hanahan.

And Senate President Pro Tem John Drummond, a video gambling opponent, gave an impassioned speech against putting a ban in the budget after Rep. Billy Boan, R-Heath Springs, suggested trading a now-dead $100 million borrowing measure for a video gambling ban.

"That same group that filibustered the video poker ban is waiting for us," Drummond said. "And this budget bill is more important than banning video poker."

Will the Republican-controlled House, which voted to ban video gambling, accept any kind of regulation this year? "I don't know," Harrell said.

Gambling experts have long said the state needs stricter laws and regulations on video gambling. South Carolina and Montana are the only states that do not link video gambling machines to a central government computer to track wagers.

Also, most states require minimum payouts, essentially guaranteeing that a specific percentage of wagers is returned to gamblers in prize money. South Carolina has no state-mandated percentage, said William Thompson, a University of Nevada-Las Vegas professor who has studied gambling for 18 years.