by Oran P. Smith
Things did not begin well for Warren Ferguson when he took over for Barney Fife in the Mayberry Sheriff’s department. In his first episode, Warren arrested and incarcerated the entire Mayberry Ladies’ Aid Society. Loyal fans of the show will remember the ladies’ crime: gambling. Aunt Bea and her cohorts, seeking to raise funds to help the underprivileged, held a bingo game. Even with cheap, donated prizes, the event put them at odds with a local ordinance. So off to the pokey they went, and there they stayed until Warren agreed to drop the charges. This sitcom episode shows how difficult the enforcement of gambling laws can be. Left to police, one law officer may demand that a law be enforced to the letter while another may honor the custom of applying it loosely.
From the mythical town of Mayberry in 1965, travel if you will with me to August, 1997 to a convenience store near Ridgeland, South Carolina. Joy Baker, a 10-day-old infant, sits in the back seat of a car while her mother plays video poker at one of the state’s 38,000 terminals. As the minutes turn into hours, Joy’s mom continues to play video poker. Anyone who lived in South Carolina at the time can describe the horrible image of Sergeant Julius Baker clutching the photo of his late daughter. The coroner said Joy perished from dehydration, but the death certificate could just as well have said she died from video poker, a form of gaming experts called “the crack cocaine” of gambling because of the ease of access and its addictive properties. Thankfully, video poker is no longer legal.
Right now at the Statehouse, for at least the third time in as many sessions, the General Assembly is considering gambling legislation. This time there are three potential laws. One bill would amend the constitution, one would allow charitable raffles, and one would allow poker.
Palmetto Family Alliance, whose predecessor Legacy Alliance led the legislative fight against video poker, came to this fight four years ago with the best legislative strategy available to us at the time: stop all gambling bills. We were comfortable with leaving it to the discretion of local law enforcement to interpret the laws sensibly.
Our past modus operandi was understandable. With pro-gambling forces hard at work in the lobby and a horde of sharp lawyers nationwide looking for every opportunity to legislate loopholes in South Carolina law, why would the minimally-funded, under-lawyered side look for a fight? Our best answer to changing a jot or a tittle in our old but comfortable gambling statutes was always “No Way, No How.”
This year, we have taken the huge risk of agreeing it is time to change the law so that worthy non-profit organizations can hold raffles legally. But what should be the specific language of the new law?
We believe in keeping professional raffle promoters out. We also believe that only worthy organizations should qualify for raffle permits and that the number and raffles and their prize values shouldn’t make the fundraisers about gambling rather than helping the needy. These standards will require changes to the version of S.255 introduced into the Senate. But all of our proposals are currently the law in other states. We developed these proposals after attending all five of the Senate hearings around the state on revising our state’s gambling laws. The overwhelming consensus was for specific types of organizations with specific restrictions, not wide open gambling.
S.254, the bill concerned with poker, we are watching even more closely. This bill would completely rewrite an entire section of our law. Because just two words gave us video poker, every word is critical. Every sentence must be parsed to protect the family-friendly culture we have enjoyed here in South Carolina since the demise of video gambling.
This past Sunday, The State quoted a statement made by Senator Chip Campsen of Charleston during a markup session in the Judiciary Committee. This statement summarizes our response to those who believe our concerns about the danger of adding hundreds of words to our gaming statutes is a hallucination: “This is not speculation. It’s history.”
No one wants our laws to be a joke, but there is also an overwhelming consensus that South Carolina shouldn’t become another Atlantic City or Las Vegas.
We pray the Senate and the House will draft carefully and that we as a state will measure every word together. We owe that to Joy Baker.
Oran P. Smith is President of Palmetto Family Council, a faith-based public policy research foundation operating in Columbia since 1994. Contact him through the Palmetto Family website at www.palmettofamily.org.