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What can we do with all those video poker machines?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Tuesday, June 13, 2006

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Chapel Hill, NC - 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 John 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 addition 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 Representative John Blust 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, 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 a government taking of 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 N.C. Amusement Machine Association, Richard Frye, estimated that the finanacial 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.

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.”

These are convincing reasons why the government should prohibit gambling, including video poker, even though some people might suffer great financial loss.

In fact, it is easy to understand why everybody in the legislature except Senator Webster was persuaded to eliminate the activity that causes the conditions that Sheriff Batten described.

What is hard to understand is why most of those same legislators voted to have the state establish a business that causes many of the same problems as video poker.

But, having established the rule that government-run gambling games are okay, even when the same activities are otherwise “evil,” here is how the legislature can take care of Senator Webster’s problem about taking the video poker machines without compensation:

Buy the machines at a fair price at a fair price and give them to the North Carolina lottery. Let the lottery add video poker to “Powerball” and its growing list of more and more exciting and entrancing games.

Afterall, when the government entices folks to gamble, it’s all okay, isn’t it?

Or is it?

Not in my book. Not ever.


D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch. Bookwatch broadcasts two “encore” programs this Sunday (June 18). At 5:00 pm the featured guest is Ann B. Ross, author of “Miss Julia's School of Beauty.” Then, at 10:30 pm, following UNC-TV’s broadcast of Live From Lincoln Center's The Light in the Piazza, the guest is The Light in the Piazza author Elizabeth Spencer.

Upcoming NC Bookwatch programs, all at 5pm, Sundays on UNC-TV:

June 18 Ann B. Ross Miss Julia's School of Beauty (5:00 pm)

Elizabeth Spencer The Light in the Piazza (10:30 pm)

June 25 Lawrence Earley Looking for Longleaf

July 2 Peter Perret A Well Tempered Mind

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