By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — “Greed, materialism, and an inordinate affection for money all come alive in a gambling venue. And the results are crime, corruption, destroyed lives and even the injury of many innocent people,” the Rev. Mark Creech told a group of state lawmakers who are considering whether North Carolina should legalize and tax video gaming.
The Christian Action League’s executive director was among nearly a dozen speakers invited to address Republican House members Thursday at a joint meeting of two GOP Caucus committees. The party was criticized for not opening the meeting to the press. But House Speaker Thom Tillis (Mecklenburg) said it was within the rules and an appropriate way to gather information on an upcoming issue.
“There are people that we want to hear from who may or may not feel as comfortable under your lights,” he told reporters.
Rep. Mike Stone (R-Harnett), chair of the meeting, called it an “information period” and emphasized that “as a caucus we are not giving an opinion on where we’re going.”
The majority party is delving into the issue in response to reports that Gov. Bev Perdue may include legalizing video poker as part of her two-year budget proposal in the face of a nearly $3 billion deficit. But the Rev. Creech reminded representatives that “whether the government should enhance its revenues with gambling monies by making losers of its citizens is a moral question and not simply an economic one.” He said government sponsored gambling makes “a one-time social evil into an acceptable social policy and turns state government into a huckster.”
He further added that despite the fact that state-sponsored forms of gambling are often considered “cash cows,” gambling is immoral on many levels. It promotes chance, luck, reckless abandon, personal gain and pleasure at the expense of others in contrast to the Christian values of good stewardship and creative and diligent work that benefits not only the worker but also his neighbor.
The Rev. Creech pointed out that comparing gambling to other business transactions is misleading at best.
“Work has intrinsic value, and the value of the money is tied to the value of the work,” he said. “Gambling diverts people from useful labor. Money changes hands but with no exchange of material goods or services. … Gambling produces nothing; the gambler loses, and the community, in some way, is required to absorb the social cost. Only a very select few and the owner of the game wins. But in legitimate business the whole community benefits.”
Also speaking against video gaming at the meeting were Bill Brooks, president and executive director of the North Carolina Family Policy Council; Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel for the N.C. Sheriff’s Association; and Tom Spampinato, founder and director of Gamblers Anonymous in North Carolina.
Caldwell told the lawmakers that the Sheriff’s Association based its decade-plus opposition to video gambling, not on the moral issue, but from the perspective of crime and devastation that the games bring to communities. He called the gaming industry “unregulatable” and reminded legislators of its poor track record.
“If these folks are smart enough to reconfigure these machines to get around the law, then they’re smart enough to reconfigure them to get around the Department of Revenue and not pay the tax that you might put on them,” Caldwell pointed out.
Brooks agreed that despite laws passed in 2006, 2008 and again last year, “The gambling industry continues to target North Carolina with its predatory and underhanded efforts to ignore both the intent and the meaning of North Carolina law.”
He addressed the social costs of gambling, highlighting a number of international and national studies that show how quickly users can become addicted to these fast-paced games.
“Five percent of the adult population of the United States is estimated to be addicted to gambling, either as pathological or problem gamblers,” he said. “If video poker is legalized in North Carolina, over time nearly 470,000 North Carolinians could develop a gambling disorder.”
Spampinato gave his personal story of the gambling addiction that robbed him of more than two decades of life that he now considers a blur.
“I sold my blood to gamble with; I took my sons’ four bank books and cleaned them out…; I took their piggy banks,” he said, describing how he was never a real husband and father to his family because his mind was focused solely on the gambling and his efforts to hide the debt he owed to 10 different finance companies.
Spampinato, who hasn’t gambled in more than 33 years, said his work with Gambler’s Anonymous keeps him in touch with those struggling with addiction and North Carolinians already have enough gambling woes with the lottery.
But representatives from the gaming industry painted a different picture for lawmakers presenting themselves as model private sector citizens, small businesses bringing in big benefits to the economy, including an estimated 14,000 jobs.
Theresa Kostrzewa, a lobbyist for International Gaming Technology which manufactures slot machines, laid out a number of options that lawmakers would have if they decided to legalize video poker. She said IGT has been involved in gaming jurisdictions all over the nation and could easily recommend best practices to North Carolina.
VS2, a software provider for a number of Internet cafes, was represented by lobbyist Gardner Payne, who urged lawmakers to regulate and tax existing businesses rather than going with a plan that the Governor has mentioned that Payne said would put the lottery in charge and have video gambling contracted to an out-of-state or out-of-country vendor. Garrett Blackwelder and Tim Smith with Figure 8 Technologies and Richard Frye with Entertainment Group of North Carolina made similar arguments, each attesting to how quickly and easily the state could plug into the private sector’s centralized system and start raking in tax proceeds.
Sandy Sands and Mike Grace spoke on behalf of IIT, International Internet Technologies, insisting that video sweepstakes are no different from peel-off sweepstakes promotions used by fast-food restaurants or the bottle-cap prizes offered by soft drink companies. Grace said until the Legislature passes a ban on those type of promotions, they can’t touch video sweepstakes parlors.
Nevertheless, Caldwell had encouraged those at the meeting not to give up on efforts to rid the state of video gambling of all sorts.
“It is true that whatever you pass, the folks who want to be in this business will try to find a workaround, but that’s true with a lot of laws you pass,” he said. “… You fix a problem, and when somebody finds a loophole you fix it again. You just have to decide at some point do you want to accept the problem because you are tired of passing laws to fix it or do you want to protect the people you represent?”
The Rev. Creech had asked lawmakers a series of similar questions: “Should our government abandon its role of protecting all of its citizens and use its unique position to create a monopoly for a state-owned and operated gambling enterprise that will market and promote what will largely amount to a false hope to its citizens?
“Should government be capitalizing on what is depraved and vulnerable about human nature in order to sustain itself?
“What does it say about a people when their government promotes the very thing that undermines legitimate business?
“And, what will be the future cost to a generation robbed of the philosophic heritage of the American workplace? If our economy is suffering now, when people in this state still understand, at least to some degree, what a work ethic is, what will it be like for future generations when only a few people practice a genuine work ethic?”
“If we don’t answer these questions, and answer them correctly, we will lose, as Walter Cronkite said, an essential characteristic of ‘who we are as Americans.'” he concluded. “I fear that for the love of money, we will have sold our soul to the devil and he will come to collect as he always does.”