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Tuesday, 06 July 2010 19:22

Senate clamps down on sweepstakes

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If Rep. Ray Rapp has his way, the state House will crush video sweepstakes as fervently as the state Senate did late last month.

N.C. senators voted 47-1 to ban the video gambling machines that have evolved to circumvent a statewide ban. Court battles waged by the gaming industry had previously stalled new legislation to outlaw video sweepstakes.

The ban proposed in the House would go into effect Dec. 1. Towns like Maggie Valley, Franklin, Canton and Hendersonville would no longer be able to charge the $2,500 or more annual licensing fees on the newly illegal businesses.

Rapp, D-Mars Hill — who has been a major opponent of video gambling all along — looks forward to finally voting against sweepstakes in the House.

“It’s spreading like a contagion, and it’s got to be stopped,” said Rapp. “This puts an exclamation point on the fact that it’s an illegal activity.”

Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, wholeheartedly supported a total ban on sweepstakes machines when it came to a vote in the Senate.

“These parlors are nothing more than unregulated casinos operating outside the law,” said Queen. “I listened to all sides, but stand firmly with the sheriffs and police chiefs across the state who asked us to tighten the law because of the increase in crime and high social costs that come with these illicit operations.”

Rapp cited a desperate woman in Marshall who robbed a Wachovia Bank after running up debt at two video sweepstakes places.

Rapp also pointed out that the machines are predominantly found in poor neighborhoods. According to a survey conducted in Florida, the majority of people who play earn less than $30,000 a year or are retirees.

But the gaming industry — which previously denied that internet sweepstakes were at all related to video gambling — argues now that regulation is the key. It would protect customers and create accountability for businesses.

“[Taxation] would provide more than $500 million a year in revenue according to recent figures released by the N.C. Lottery,” said William Thevaos, president of the Entertainment Group of North Carolina. “Lawmakers know there’s a pot of money there if they would just regulate it and tax it.”

Rapp has hardly been won over by the argument.

“If an activity’s wrong, you don’t do it,” said Rapp, adding that most people would not advocate making other illegal activities permissible simply to generate revenue.

Rapp said out of frustration, he has sometimes considered resorting to what his attorneys term the “nuclear option” — banning sweepstakes of all kinds.

“Every time we try to do this surgically, and sit there with our lawyers, it’s a challenge,” said Rapp. “[But] cooler heads prevailed.”

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