NC’s moral calculus: video poker, evil; lottery, good

by DG Martin

Did I promise you that I wouldn’t write any more columns about the lottery?

Maybe I did.’ 

I was upset last year after we lost the battle to keep North Carolina government out of the gambling business. So maybe in my disappointment and anger I did issue some kind of Nixonesque statement like, ‘“You won’t have my anti-lottery columns to kick around anymore.’”

Then again, maybe I didn’t. I am getting along in years and don’t remember everything I promise.

If I did make such a foolish promise, then I will just say that this column is not about the lottery. It is about video poker, the private gambling business that has been legal in North Carolina up until now.

Now, the same legislature and the same governor who last year put state government into the gambling business have put the state lottery’s competitors out of business.

Can you imagine what Jon Stewart would do with this on his ‘“Daily Show’” on the Comedy Channel?

Maybe he would just read the same news that our newspapers have printed (‘“Legislators celebrate establishment of state lottery to raise funds for education; legislators celebrate ban of privately-owned lottery-type video poker gambling, which has led to gambling addiction and crime.’”) ‘— and then Stewart could roll his eyes and wait for the big laughs.

The bill that bans video poker passed both houses of our legislature easily, 114-1 in the House, and 44-1 in the Senate. In the House, Rep. John Blust (R-Greensboro) voted ‘“no’” because, he said, it phased out the gambling machines and it would be better to ban them immediately.

The one real vote against the ban came in the Senate from Hugh Webster (R-Burlington), who has a reputation, according to insiders, as being a ‘“Senator No’” for ‘“often casting the lone vote against bills in the chamber.’”

Webster apparently thought that the ban was essentially the government taking property without compensation. By making the use of the video poker machines illegal, the government makes the machines useless, which is just the same as taking them away.

Webster has a point.

According to a report in the Wilmington StarNews, a spokesman for the NC Amusement Machine Association, Richard Frye, estimated that the financial losses to the owners of currently legal machines would be approximately $235 million a year.

Taking away this amount of income from anybody is something the government should not do without a very good reason.

And there are good reasons. Some have been put forward by North Carolina sheriffs, who pushed for the video poker ban for years. They point to the illegal activities that often accompany gambling operations which generate lots of cash.

Then there is gambling’s impact on people. The StarNews reported that Columbus County Sheriff Chris Batten said he received numerous calls ‘“from distraught wives and husbands about spouses gambling on video poker.’”

Batten said, ‘“That’s the complaint I got for the most part. Husbands and wives get paid and turn around and put it in a video poker machine and expect to earn a whole lot of money.’”