By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — It’s been called the crack cocaine of gambling; 100 North Carolina sheriffs called for it to be outlawed; and lawmakers’ wholeheartedly banned it more than three years ago. Nevertheless, some are wagering that legislators will agree to legalize video poker as a means for closing the state’s bulging budget gap.
Earlier this week, the Video Gaming Act (House Bill 1537) sponsored by Rep. Earl Jones (D-Greensboro) won endorsements from the Legislative Black Caucus as well as the 55,000-member State Employees Association of North Carolina, with both groups touting its revenue-producing potential at a Tuesday press conference and neither counting the societal cost.
“We feel like this is an avenue for citizens in North Carolina to have a permanent revenue source,” said Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D-Edgecombe) who said she was part of an ad-hoc troubleshooting committee that brainstormed ways to help rescue the budget and considered everything from increased taxes on beer, wine and tobacco to furloughs for state workers before being persuaded, by Jones, to promote video gaming, which he says will bring in roughly $500 million.
Dana Cope, SEANC director, went further to claim that video gaming proceeds would “make sure that we can continue to provide the mental health services that our communities so very much need … protect the classrooms and public education for the students … and make sure that probation and parole officers can have the adequate resources to do their jobs.” Cope’s hopes are apparently pinned on the $250 million projected for the general fund, with the other half to go to specific at-risk schools.
“This is really a no-brainer situation for us and our members,” Cope said of the plan to reverse the video poker ban that won unanimous approval in 2006. He joined the bill’s sponsor in claiming that when the state approved the lottery, it endorsed video poker as well. Neither addressed the fact that the ban came a year after the lottery was established.
Jones repeatedly insisted that video gaming is the same as the N.C. Lottery, that “anyone who makes a distinction is in error” and that it has “no worse or better effect on people who play it.”
Gambling experts disagree. According to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission Report, Robert Hunter, a psychologist who specializes in problem gambling, says the game’s “rapid pace (an experienced player can play 12 hands a minute), the ability to play for long periods of time, and the mesmerizing effect of music and rapidly flashing lights,” all play a role in its attraction.
Professor William Thompson from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told “Slate” magazine, “The machines suck people into the screen. You don’t talk or socialize. You don’t trade stories. It is different from blackjack or even handle slots.”
“These are the most addictive of any gambling instrument we have today,” he added.
Further, studies show African Americans are among the groups hardest hit by the addiction.
The Quinn-Pike Video Poker Study, performed in South Carolina before it rid itself of the problem, showed that the rate of problem gamblers among African Americans was more than twice that of the public in general.
“This is one reason we are surprised and dismayed to see the Legislative Black Caucus promote video poker at the expense of the African American community,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “During South Carolina’s foray into video poker one reporter there noted that 10 percent of the purchasing power of the entire black population was going into these machines.”
Closer to home, N.C. General Attorney Roy Cooper told the Greensboro News-Record last week that sheriffs still consider video poker a high-ranking problem and that his office has worked to craft more specific legal language to help close loopholes in the ban.
“It’s clear that video poker hurts families,” Cooper said.
Twice, judges have ruled in favor of video game operations, citing North Carolina’s compact to allow the games on Cherokee land as part of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Video poker operators have also skirted the rules by offering a sweepstakes-based computer system tied to a remote server, technology that lawmakers have found difficult to ban without also nixing benign games like those offered via fast-food restaurant cups or under soda bottle caps.
“I think the General Assembly gets concerned because the language that’s necessary to stop video poker is so broad that it stops games that businesses run that may be legitimate,” Cooper said. “The General Assembly needs to make the public policy decision as to whether they are going to do this broad language that would cut out some of these games and put a stop to video poker. That’s going to be their decision.”
Video poker proponents argue that the gaming is already legal, thanks to the judges’ rulings and that Jones’ bill would simply capture lost revenue. When asked about the corruption that video poker brought with it — one former sheriff is in prison for taking bribes and the probe into the former Speaker of the House, now also serving time, began with his involvement with unscrupulous gaming industry representatives — they blame all past troubles on “poor public policy” and say that putting video poker in the hands of the Department of Revenue and keeping law enforcement out of it will take care of any problems.
“We want to be taxed, we want to be legal,” William Thevaos, president of the Entertainment Group of North Carolina, told the media at the press conference. “If we made mistakes, if you think that’s what happened, OK. We want to right those things.”
Entertainment Group is the new name for the N.C. Amusement Machine Association (NCAMA), whose former lobbyist was accused of paying Rep. Jim Black $500,000 to stifle attempts to ban video poker in 2000. Records show Black received more than $200,000 in recorded campaign contributions from video-poker operators and NCAMA PAC during the 2000 to 2004 elections.
Trying to move attention away from video poker corruption, Jones continued to compare video poker to the lottery and said he had a problem with “this paternalistic attitude that ‘I know better how low-wealth people should spend their money.'”
“Some people can’t pay $150 or $200 to play golf, but they may enjoy playing video lottery for $1 or $3 or $10,” he said. “You have a percentage of people that are going to make mistakes, from the low wealth to the extremely wealthy. But when those that run corporations make mistakes it impacts the entire society.”
Jones did not address how society would deal with the cost of gambling, which experts say will far outweigh financial gains.
“For every dollar of revenue generated by gambling taxpayers must pay at least $3 in increased criminal justice costs, social welfare expenses, high regulatory costs and increased infrastructure expenditures,” said John Kindt, professor of business administration at the University of Illinois. “No reputable economist anywhere believes it’s (gambling) an economic tool.”