RALEIGH – Rep. Ray Rapp (D-Madison) once compared banning video poker to playing Whac-a-Mole – an analogy that rings truer by the minute as lawmakers consider Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning’s Feb. 19 ruling that the state’s 2-year-old law against this highly addictive form of gambling is null and void.
The ruling – which Manning put on hold while the state Attorney General takes the case to the N.C. Court of Appeals – was the result of a lawsuit filed by McCracken and Amick Inc. (doing business as the New VEMCO Music Co.) claiming that the ban violated federal law. Asked by the state to dismiss the case, instead Manning sided with New VEMCO, ruling that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act “does not permit a state to ban the possession and operation of video gaming machines elsewhere in the state while allowing their possession and operation on tribal lands.”
Video poker was legalized in North Carolina in 1993 after which then-Gov. Jim Hunt approved a gambling agreement with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to offer the games on their reservation beginning the next year. Lawmakers issued new regulations on the machines in 2000 and, after repeated problems with illegal payouts and other corruption, had voted to begin phasing them out by 2006, with the exception of those on the Cherokee lands.
“The Christian Action League has long opposed all forms of gambling, whether the lottery, video poker – on or off the reservation – a Christian worldview rejects all of it. But I believe this was an erroneous ruling that we can only hope will be overturned by the State Court of Appeals”, said CAL executive director, Rev. Mark Creech. “Video poker is like the ‘crack cocaine’ of gambling. Our state’s deliverance from it was an exorcism difficult and painful, but necessary to redeem the character of our great state and end the slavery of its many victims. If there was ever anything justified in hating, it’s video poker.”
Rep. Rapp also anticipates Manning’s ruling being overturned. “He mixed both federal and state law in his decision,” Rapp said. “But I do appreciate the fact that he stayed his order until the matter is fully adjudicated.”
Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association, said last week that his organization had worked since 2000 to get the machines outlawed.
“We were successful in 2006,” Caldwell said. “And now it seems that the Legislature fully supports our position and hopefully will take action if the recent court ruling is upheld.”
The IGRA mandates that tribes wanting to implement Class III gaming (which includes electronic facsimiles of any game of chance) must be sure the form of gambling is permitted in the state, must negotiate a compact with the state and must have an approved gaming ordinance. It does not appear to give specific rules regarding what happens if the form of gaming is later outlawed in the state.
According to a News and Observer article on the ruling, Sen. Majority Leader Tony Rand said the state doesn’t have jurisdiction on the reservations and that gambling is allowed under federal law.
Rand told the Fayetteville Observer that lawmakers would be working with their staff attorneys and those with the Attorney General’s Office to decide what the next step might be.
Rapp said that if lawmakers passed a stricter ban, the language would have to be so broad as to prohibit fast food restaurant games like McDonald’s Monopoly and instant win promotions under soda bottle caps, something he doesn’t want to do.
“That would be like using the proverbial elephant gun to kill the gnat,” Rapp said, adding that he would rather have the Legislature pass a resolution asking for the judicial system to expedite the case and making crystal clear the General Assembly’s goal to keep video poker out of the state.
“We want it stopped, period,” he added. “It is so clear what the intention of this past Legislature has been. That’s why I’m amazed that we have to keep playing Whac-a-Mole.”
If the Superior Court ruling is upheld, video poker machines will return to convenience stores, bars and other locations, much to the dismay of law enforcement officers who found it next to impossible to monitor the games and pay-offs, which by law can be non-cash prizes worth no more than $10.
Investigations into corruption surrounding the video poker industry led to the arrest of former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford who was sentenced to 15 years for taking bribes. A federal probe also snared Garland Garrett, a secretary of transportation whose family owned video-poker machines. And former House Speaker Jim Black’s ties to the industry are well known.
Although VEMCO’s attorney assured the News and Observer that his client’s interests were only in “legitimate operation of games,” the Fayetteville Observer reported that Cumberland County authorities seized 30 of the company’s machines in August 2007. Ralph Amick reportedly told the Fayetteville newspaper in 2006 that he had about 140 video poker machines which accounted for about a fourth of his company’s income.
The VEMCO case and the state’s appeal could have legal ramifications beyond North Carolina as gaming attorneys say it could set a precedent forcing states to take an all-or-nothing approach, either permitting gambling for everyone or prohibiting it for everyone.
Since Manning’s ruling, newspapers throughout North Carolina have published editorials urging the state to do whatever it takes to shut the door on video poker once more. “Gov. Bev Perdue, Attorney General Roy Cooper and the legislative leaders should put their heads together and devise a new legal strategy to keep video poker out of North Carolina communities,” suggested the Greensboro News & Record.
It may be months before the McCracken & Amick case reaches the state Court of Appeals. That’s why Rapp wants the case expedited, so that if Manning’s ruling stands lawmakers would have time to recraft legislation that would satisfy the courts.
“Rulings like this frustrate the will of the legislative and executive branches of the government which I think have spoken clearly and almost unanimously,” Rep. Rapp said. “We are just trying to find a way to communicate as effectively as possible how strong and solid the sentiment is in favor of banning video gaming, period.”
To find out more about video poker and why the state needs to keep its ban, log on to the N.C. Family Policy Council Web site (www.ncfpc.org), click on Policy Papers and scroll to “Video Gambling: Why a Total Ban is a Safe Bet.”