By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — The video poker mole was whacked once again Wednesday when the N.C. House approved a ban of electronic sweepstakes. The 86-27 vote that set Dec. 1 as the “game over” date for the hundreds of mini-casinos popping up across the state came after more than two hours of sometimes heated debate.
“This was not an easy vote for many lawmakers. We applaud those who stood firm in the face of intense pressure from the gambling industry,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “Video poker is one of the most addictive forms of gambling, so our hope is that folks who are caught up by these games will seek help now without even waiting for the cyber cafes to shut down this fall.”
Rep. Ray Rapp (D-Madison), who has long used the Whac-A-Mole analogy to describe the Legislature’s battle against video poker, told colleagues that the sweepstakes were quickly creating more gambling addicts.
“According to the North Carolina Council on Problem Gambling, since February 2009, every Gambler’s Anonymous group in the state has increased from 75 to 100 percent and of these new callers, an average of 80 percent statewide specified the sweepstakes cafes as their addiction source,” Rapp said.
He told lawmakers about a March bank robbery in Marshall during which a “well-loved, well-liked, well-respected” but addicted woman walked into a Wachovia branch and demanded money because she was so desperate to pay off her video-gambling debts.
Speaking in support of House Bill 80, which passed the Senate 47-1 last month, Rep. Melanie Goodwin (D-Richmond) reminded her colleagues of North Carolina’s history with video poker and of two ongoing court cases that have tied the hands of law enforcement. Reviewing the legislation’s definitions and provisions section by section, she called it a good bill that closes the loophole allowing video sweepstakes, which she described as a “cancer to our communities.”
Rep. Ray Warren (D-Alexander), a former sheriff who has dealt firsthand with problems created by video poker and slot machines, agreed that they prey on the poor.
“I had people come into my office and ask me to do something about the video poker machines because their husbands were spending the grocery money. They were coming home broke,” he said, encouraging lawmakers to seek input from local sheriffs and police chiefs. “It really is a serious problem within our community.”
Rep. Frank Iler (R-Brunswick) said he was able to reach 11 of 19 mayors in his county when he realized the bill was on the House calendar and that every one of them urged him to vote for the ban.
But some lawmakers said their constituents advised them otherwise, some within the industry fearing they would lose their jobs and others saying that they can’t afford to go to Las Vegas or Atlantic City and want to be able to gamble at home.
Rep. Earl Jones (D-Guilford), who had sponsored legislation to legalize and tax video poker, led the charge against the ban, repeatedly citing statistics from the N.C. Gambling Helpline that showed hundreds more calls were made about lottery addiction than problems with video sweepstakes. The helpline number is printed on lottery tickets.
He insisted that shutting down sweepstakes would cost North Carolina 10,000 jobs and harm a number of municipalities that have included revenue from sweepstakes licensing fees in their budgets.
But Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake) pointed out that all the money that people are currently pouring into sweepstakes would be spent elsewhere — for groceries, mortgage payments or to buy other merchandise that would generate legitimate jobs.
Other lawmakers insisted that it was inappropriate for the state to ban video poker while operating its own lottery. Still others lamented that the motion for concurrence meant they could vote the Senate version of the bill up or down, but not amend it.
Rep. Larry Womble (D-Forsyth) said the ban was hypocritical and that legislators were pushing it through just so they could gain “bragging rights.” Rep. Becky Carney (D-Mecklenburg) and Rep. Carolyn Justice (R-Pender) wanted to hold off on action until next session when they said lawmakers could look more thoroughly at the issue and decide whether to ban it, tax it or legalize it under the lottery.
But Rep. Alice Bordsen (D-Alamance) warned fellow House members that if they rejected the bill and tried later to regulate and tax the industry they would be in for an ongoing and even more difficult battle.
“If we don’t do it now, the chances are we will never be able to work with this because the industry is proliferating at a rate that defies description,” she said. “… If you think you are facing a fight now, wait until later. Anything they want us to do; they will have the numbers; they will have the money; they will have everything to beat this body into submission if we don’t act today.”
Carney’s motion to remove the bill from the calendar and Jones’ attempt to adjourn the session without voting both failed.
Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake) didn’t try to sidestep the issue.
“Our constituents did not hire us to come here and make the easy decisions for them but they hired us to come here and make the hard decisions,” he said. “… For me, the decision is simple, this is an industry that preys upon people who do not have a choice, people who are addicted to gambling, people who were addicted to this when we called it video poker, people who remain addicted to it when we call it sweepstakes.”
While Rep. Kelly Alexander (D-Mecklenburg) tried to persuade the House that the bill could inadvertently outlaw some cell phone applications, Jones claimed it was being “rammed down lawmakers’ throats” with very little debate.
But Rapp put the issue back into perspective.
“Folks, we started this discussion in the year 2000; we continued in 2004; we passed legislation in 2006. The industry found a way around it and we had to go ahead and fix the bill in 2008. They found another way around it. This is the same issue that has been going on for 10 years. This is not new,” he said, again comparing the frustrations of crafting a ban to playing Whac-A-Mole.
“We’ve determined that gambling is exploitative, it’s wrong, and we’re going to ban it. This is simply to affirm something that has been discussed and talked about for a very long time.”