The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

June 25, 2010

The right play on video poker

By Chris Fitzsimon

Thursday, June 24, 2010 — The fate of the latest incarnation of the video poker industry in North Carolina is now in the hands of the state House after the Senate voted 47-1 Monday night to ban internet sweepstakes parlors. The parlors are spreading quickly across the state as a way to get around the 2006 ban on traditional video poker machines.

Players technically pay for Internet access time, but they are still playing for money, and the games are still there as a way for the industry to exploit poverty and desperation.

Only Sen. Julie Boseman voted against the ban, preferring instead to fold the games in the state lottery to raise revenue for the state, a solution that would be worse than the current problem of unregulated video poker houses popping up every week.

The state lottery comes up often in the debate, as people ask how the state can prohibit gambling on video poker while running a gambling enterprise of its own. It’s a fair point that Sen. Josh Stein answers by saying that video poker is qualitatively worse than the lottery.

Stein deserves a lot of credit for leading the fight against video poker, but he’s wrong about that, it’s not much worse than the lottery, it is very similar.

The lottery was a mistake and we are all shamed by our government trying to convince people to throw away their money to pay for schools because political leaders couldn’t muster the courage to raise enough revenue for education honestly and fairly.

The only thing worse than the state encouraging people to buy lottery tickets would be for the state to encourage them to play video poker, too. Making another mistake because we have already made one would only ruin more lives.

Many supporters of video poker use the libertarian argument that the government shouldn’t be telling people how to spend their money and what they can or cannot do. That’s a fair point in a political philosophy class, but public policy isn’t always that simple and clean.

We can’t always protect people from themselves and shouldn’t always try, but there are already plenty of gray areas. Alcohol is a legal product but using other drugs could send you to jail.

Then there is the question of state revenues. The state is basically broke and lawmakers have spent all session figuring out what not to fund and who to lay off. And there is plenty more pain coming next year when the shortfall could reach $3 billion. Of course the state could use several hundred million dollars raised from legalizing video poker and then taxing it.

But that’s a dangerous road for a state government to tread, making significant moral compromises for cash. There’s no telling where that might end.

Maybe the most compelling argument against legalizing video poker comes from Bob Hall with Democracy North Carolina who has tracked the large political contributions of the industry for years.

Hall points out that many of the operators now fighting to keep video sweepstakes parlors legal played a role in the scandals that sent public officials to prison, including former House Speaker Jim Black.

Hall wonders if the corruption that “oozes through the industry” has disappeared. Their money that bought that influence above and below the table certainly hasn’t.

Add it all up and it’s not hard to figure out why the vote to ban video poker wasn’t close. It’s an industry with a history of corruption that preys on the vulnerable.

Its fate is now up to the House. Let’s hope common sense and decency prevails there, too.

Chris Fitzsimon is with North Carolina Public Policy