Originally created 06/28/01

Officials urge end to gaming

For years, the video gaming industry - some say gambling industry - has been slowly but steadily trying to push its way into Georgia.

On Friday, the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce started pushing back.

In a June 22 letter to Gov. Roy Barnes, chamber officials urged the governor to use his discretionary authority to add the issue of video amusement games to the agenda of the General Assembly's special session in August.

"There is no benefit to waiting till next January," chamber Chairman Ed Tarver wrote. "The destructive gambling industry will continue to entrench itself in our state, making its removal more difficult. Do not allow the industry's emissaries to dupe you into thinking that this disease can be controlled or that this will damage legitimate business."

Opponents of video gaming almost won their battle to rid Georgia of video gaming machines during the last session of the General Assembly, but a last-minute filibuster by state Rep. David Lucas of Macon prevented a vote from being taken.

"The bill had been moving all over the place," said Scott MacGregor, the chamber's vice president for community development. "It would pass the Senate and then get stripped in the House. Committee hearings on the bill were canceled at the last minute. It was a very convoluted path."

The legislation, Senate Bill 204, would have eliminated the use of video poker, keno, black jack and craps and modified slot machines in Georgia, Richmond County District Attorney Danny Craig said.

The "ruse," as Mr. Craig calls it, began about eight years ago with the passage of legislation that allowed businesses to award trinkets - not to exceed $5 in value - to children for successfully playing games at establishments such as Chuck E. Cheese's and Putt-Putt Golf & Games.

About a year later, legislation was passed that allowed the awarding of a gift certificate for successful play of these games. A few years later, legislation was passed that allowed these gift certificates to be awarded for a demonstration of skill.

Skill was defined as a learned power or a thing done competently or a particular, successful craft, art, ability or strategy.

Finally, legislation was passed to allow the accumulation of points - and prizes - on successful replays, thereby eliminating the $5 cap on trinkets.

"A loophole here, a loophole there - you wouldn't really notice it, but last year, the industry's lobbyists began talking about bringing into law the creation of clear definitions of what gaming was," Mr. MacGregor said. "It's the opposite of what needs to be done. Once you do it, undoing it is far more difficult."

Mr. Barnes' office has said repeatedly that the governor has not made a decision on video gaming machines. Chamber officials said they had received no response from the governor as of Wednesday afternoon.

"We need a stronger statutory scheme for law enforcement," Mr. Craig said. "Commercialized gambling is illegal in Georgia, and these machines, as far as I'm concerned, are commercialized gambling."

Mr. Craig said there is no taxation on these machines and no benefit to society. (Most of the money from the Georgia lottery goes to public education.)

Mr. Craig and others, including the chamber, say there is a direct link between the machines and organized crime, in addition to a negative financial impact on a community.

Reach Justin Martin at (706) 823-3552.


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