Originally created 02/23/01

Georgia Senate hears testimony



ATLANTA - The bid to outlaw video poker in Georgia picked up steam Thursday as state senators listened to horror stories about addicts losing paychecks to machines police say they have a hard time regulating.

In a hearing before the Senate Republican Caucus, police, district attorneys and the families of people who have lost thousands of dollars called for an end to the gaming.

"Video poker is going to spread across the state like a cancer if it's not stopped now," said Arch Adams, spokesman for a Hartwell County residents group organized to ban the games. "If your county has paychecks, it's coming to you."

Meanwhile, some lawmakers say Gov. Roy Barnes and Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor have taken an interest in the issue.

Video poker was outlawed in South Carolina last year. Since then, law enforcement and political officials in counties near the state line have complained about a flood of the machines into Georgia.

Local governments in counties near Athens, Augusta and Savannah have looked to the state for answers on how to curb the spread of the games.

State law prohibits cash payments from the games. But senators watched a Georgia Bureau of Investigation video tape of money illegally being handed out in Catoosa County - a situation critics say is common.

Three video poker bills are before the state Senate. Two of them, sponsored by Sen. Mike Beatty, R-Jefferson, would ban the games outright or give local governments the right to make their own laws.

A third, sponsored by Sen. Mike Polak, D-Atlanta, would beef up laws on the machines, but keep them legal.

Lawmakers spent a portion of Thursday's hearing grilling gaming industry lobbyist Les Schneider, who helped craft Mr. Polak's bill.

Mr. Schneider said members of his industry, about two dozen of whom joined the crowd in a packed conference room, also want to see dishonest game owners punished.

"These machines have been part of the fabric of this state for years," said Mr. Schneider, who compared complaints about the video poker machines to arguments against pool tables and pinball machines made in years past.

"We want businesses to lose their livelihood for doing it wrong."

A study released in late 1999 by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission estimated that the United States had 5.4 million pathological gamblers.

Morris News Service reporter Janice Reid contributed to this report.