Originally created 03/01/01

Senators hotly argue bills on video poker



ATLANTA - A meeting of a Georgia Senate committee discussing video poker abruptly ended Wednesday before a bill concerning the games was considered, and members later became involved in a heated debate.

The Senate Finance and Public Utilities Committee was scheduled to decide whether to support a bill by Sen. Mike Polak, D-Atlanta, that would increase penalties on illegal use of the games while making sure the games themselves stay legal.

But with a flurry of amendments waiting - including one by Augusta Sen. Don Cheeks that would ban the games outright - committee Chairman Sen. Nathan Dean ended the meeting.

"We're going to take it up tomorrow," Mr. Dean, D-Rockmart, said Wednesday.

State law prohibits cash payouts from the games. But critics say that law is widely ignored and that, in other cases, players redeem prizes for cash.

Mr. Polak's bill, backed by the gaming industry, would make cash payouts a felony and give local governments more leeway in enforcing existing laws.

"This is a law enforcement, tough-on-crime bill," Mr. Polak said. "The goal is to put the bad guys out of business."

But critics say the bill doesn't go far enough.

Mr. Cheeks said two of his amendments are similar to bills by Sen. Mike Beatty, R-Jefferson, that would either make the games illegal or give local governments the authority to ban them.

"My amendment would clean it up completely," Mr. Cheeks said. "I don't want them to be allowed to play the gambling machines anywhere in Georgia."

After the meeting was adjourned, Mr. Cheeks, Mr. Polak and other senators continued to discuss the issue with gaming industry lobbyist Les Schneider and Danny Craig, the district attorney for the Augusta Judicial Circuit, who helped craft the anti-gaming amendments.

Crowded around a committee room table, the group argued, sometimes in raised voices, over the various proposals.

"All you did with (Mr. Polak's Senate Bill) 204 is you enhanced the penalties, but you didn't address the condemnation of gambling in the state of Georgia," Mr. Craig said. "What you would do is give me a wonderful penalty for something I could never prosecute."

Mr. Schneider and Mr. Polak fired back that the proposed bill to ban the games could be interpreted to outlaw children's video games and games that give prizes, such as Skee-ball.

Reach Doug Gross at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.