ATLANTA - A bid to ban video poker in Georgia cleared a major hurdle Tuesday, winning unanimous approval in a committee whose chairman is an opponent of the effort.
The ban, which would rid the state of machines critics say are routinely used for illegal gambling, has already cleared the Senate and could be voted on by the full House today or Thursday.
House Rules Committee Chairman Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, said he could not count enough votes in the House to support regulating the machines - a plan he supports - instead of outlawing them.
The only other option, he said, would be to ask lawmakers to fight a losing battle against Gov. Roy Barnes, who launched a high-profile effort to ban video poker two weeks ago.
"That's kind of politically falling on the sword, and I'm not asking anybody to do that," Mr. Smyre said.
The committee approved the Senate's bill after changing it to list legal amusement games - such as Skeeball, arcade games and pinball machines - and making other minor changes.
Gambling, other than the state-sponsored lottery, is illegal in Georgia. But since South Carolina banned video poker last year, games with names such as Cherry Master and Pot of Gold have flooded into the state.
Current law allows the machines to award prizes only in the form of merchandise coupons worth less than $5. But critics, including a growing number of law enforcement officials, say game owners routinely ignore that law, simply paying players cash or setting up deals in which prizes are exchanged for money.
A recent Georgia Bureau of Investigation report estimates video poker has become a $1 billion a year industry in Georgia, with more than 20,000 of the machines spread throughout the state.
During the General Assembly's regular winter session, a Republican-led push to ban the games fell moments short of passing - dying at midnight on the session's final day.
GOP leaders urged Mr. Barnes, a Democrat, to let them reconsider the issue last month, when they convened a special session to redraw political lines. After reading the GBI report, which called for the machines to be banned, he agreed.
He then began a public push that included five anti-video poker news conferences in less than two weeks, lining up police, sheriffs and district attorneys who support the cause.
Workers in the amusement games industry call the effort political overkill and estimate that 10,000 to 18,000 Georgians could lose their jobs if the games are banned.
"I do sales of them, so I'd be the first one out," said Allister Lennox, a salesman for Game World in Duluth.
Mr. Lennox said he and fellow amusement industry professionals would be willing to agree to a number of compromises - from limiting the number of machines per location to making them pay out only Georgia Lottery tickets.
But critics say any effort at regulating the games would just open up a new set of loopholes for an industry that's been linked with organized crime in other states.
Tuesday's committee victory, they say, was a huge step.
"This was the highest hurdle," said Arch Adams, the chairman of the Hart County-based group Stop Video Poker. "The worst fear was getting it bottled up in committee."
But Mr. Adams acknowledged that his group's fight, which began before the General Assembly's regular session started in January, isn't over yet.
"I'll believe it when the ink dries," he said.
Reach Doug Gross at (404) 589-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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