By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH – Two months after a Superior Court ruling undercut the state’s ban on video poker, the issue is before legislators again in three bills: one that would reaffirm the General Assembly’s opposition to the highly addictive form of gambling, a second that would ban server-based versions of the game, and surprisingly enough, legislation that would welcome the modernized one-armed bandits back to the Tar Heel state.
“Video poker was a bad idea in 1993 when our state legalized it, a bad idea in 2006 when lawmakers banned it; and it is still a bad idea today, no matter how it is repackaged for a comeback,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina. “We are hopeful the vast majority of legislators will stand strong in their opposition to video poker as they did in the nearly unanimous vote to phase it out three years ago.”
Leading the push to bring it back to North Carolina is Rep. Earl Jones (D-Guilford) who said the Video Gaming Entertainment Act he filed Wednesday (H 1537) would not cause problems for law enforcement but would instead be administered via the Department of Revenue which would collect licensing fees from game manufacturers and operators in addition to 20 percent of proceeds. He expects the games would bring an estimated $300 million into state coffers, half earmarked for the General Fund and the rest divided among low-wealth counties’ school systems that qualify under the Leandro Decision.
The Greensboro News and Record reported that Jones’ idea has the support of the Entertainment Group of North Carolina, a group of amusement industry business owners promising “a new era of laws, regulation and oversight.” Entertainment Group of North Carolina is the new name for the N.C. Amusement Machine Association. Records show that former Speaker Jim Black, who helped keep Video Poker alive in North Carolina and is now in federal prison, received more than $200,000 in recorded campaign contributions from video-poker operators and the NCAMA PAC during the 2000 to 2004 elections.
Jones said Wednesday he wasn’t aware that the Entertainment Group of North Carolina had announced support for his bill or of the group’s history. He admitted that he had voted for the video poker ban in 2006, but said that the state’s establishment of a lottery, which happened in 2005, had changed “the political landscape of gaming” since that time and that lawmakers are being “paternalistic and hypocritical” when they try to tell others how to spend their entertainment dollars or when they deny businesses the right to operate games while the state itself is involved in the gambling industry.
But Rep. Ray Rapp (D-Madison) and a number of other legislators disagree. “This would be a bad law and one that would promote gambling among the poorest of our citizens, those who have the least disposable income and are most easily exploited,” said Rep. Rapp.
North Carolina has traveled the video poker road before and lawmakers and law enforcement leaders alike have seen the damage done by addiction and the corruption that spread the longer the games were allowed to operate, even when legal pay-offs were limited to non-cash prizes worth $10 or less.
“It’s unrealistic to think that video poker – no matter who is responsible for the regulations or oversight – won’t reap the same kinds of corruption and societal problems that it always has,” said the Rev. Creech. “Anyone who thinks this is simple entertainment should spend a few minutes talking with folks whose family members have become addicted and repeatedly played away their grocery money or entire paychecks.”
“The machines suck people into the screen,” Professor William Thompson, a gambling expert at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told “Slate” magazine when asked about video poker. “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.”
A study in Oregon showed that the number of Gamblers Anonymous groups went from 3 to more than 30 after video poker was introduced. Some 81 percent of problem gamblers there had wagered primarily on video poker and reported an average gambling debt of about $16,000.
According to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission Report, Robert Hunter, a clinical psychologist in Las Vegas who specializes in problem gambling, says that “video poker’s hold on people is caused by 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.”
Hunter says pathological gamblers “sort of escape into the machine and make the world go away,” and compares it to a trip to the “Twilight Zone.”
Studies have also shown that African-American players are more likely to be caught in the grip of problem gambling. And women, who may not be attracted to the more male-dominated table games, are often drawn in by video poker. Before South Carolina banned the game, a Lancaster woman lost more than $29,000 between April 1990 and January 1993, according to a Charlotte Observer article. Immeasurably worse was a 1999 case of involuntary manslaughter involving a woman who left her 10-day-old baby in a hot car to die while she played video poker.
These are among the many reasons that Rep. Rapp is still playing what he said seems like a game of “Whac-A-Mole” against video poker in North Carolina. After the Wake County Superior Court ruling, Rapp filed House Resolution 1418 to reaffirm the House of Representatives’ position that video gaming machines be banned from the Tar Heel state. He expects the resolution to be heard in the Judiciary Committee as early as next week.
Judge Howard Manning struck down the state’s video gaming law on the grounds that it could not prohibit the machines in the rest of the state while allowing the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to operate the same games under a compact approved by former Gov. Jim Hunt via the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Manning stayed his ruling while the state Attorney General takes the case to the N.C. Court of Appeals.
Neither the state ban nor Manning’s stay has kept some video poker operators from skirting the rules by modifying the machines so that they would not be covered by the ban, another issue being addressed by legislation introduced by Rapp and Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand (D-Cumberland). House Bill 1277 (Ban Server-Based Video Poker) and Senate Bill 971 (Close Sweepstakes Loophole) would broaden the ban on video poker to include related games operated via a sweepstakes-based computer system tied into a remote server.
“We are still considering what to do with this bill (H 1277) and keeping our options open,” Rapp said. “The bill as written could cut out all video-based gaming and sweepstakes and there is concern that it would be too inclusive.”
Rep. Rapp said earlier this year that it would be difficult for lawmakers to pass a stricter video poker ban without broadening the language so much that it outlawed fastfood restaurant games and instant win promotions under soda bottle caps, something he doesn’t want to do.
Rapp’s bill (H 1277) was filed April 8 and sent to the Committee on Ways and Means/Broadband Connectivity. If it gets a favorable report there, it will go to Judiciary I. Besides Rapp, primary sponsors include Melanie Goodwin (D-Richmond), Ray Warren (D-Catawba) and Bob England (D-Rutherford). The bill has 17 co-sponsors. House Resolution 1418 has 26 co-sponsors. Its primary sponsors include Rapp, Goodwin, Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Wake) and Rep. Ronnie Sutton (D-Robeson).
“Overall there has been a positive reaction to the bills because many of the members feel frustrated that the laws passed by the General Assembly have been rendered useless by judicial maneuvers,” Rep. Rapp said. He urged CAL supporters to write the Governor, the Attorney General and their lawmakers to demand that action be taken to keep video poker from making a comeback.
“It is important that citizens express their views on this plague on our people, especially on our poorest citizens,” he added.