Published Friday, March 15, 2013
By Walter C. Jones
Morris News Service
ATLANTA – Days after a statewide gambling raid in Florida led to more than 50 arrests and the resignation of that state's lieutenant governor, the Georgia Senate approved legislation Thursday pushed by Gov. Nathan Deal to clamp down on stores offering cash prizes to players of coin-operated games like video poker.
Existing law prohibits awarding prizes in anything other than merchandise, but law-enforcement officials say many stores routinely bypass that prohibition. For example, just Friday officials in Newnan raided two stores and confiscated 15 video-poker machines and $35,000 in cash.
"We can stop some of the bad actors, probably not all," said Deal's floor leader Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton.
Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens pushed through legislation last year to empower the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to bust up illegal cash prizes given in so-called internet cafes like the ones raided Tuesday in Florida.
The bill the Senate passed in a 35-16 vote changed a law from a dozen years ago that outlawed games of chance but permitted Class B machines that let prize points accumulate over successive games.
House Bill 487 requires point-accumulating games to be tied to Lottery Corporation computers via the internet within 10 years. In the meantime, the Lottery will take over regulation from the Department of Revenue and get to keep up to 10 percent of the sales to fund enforcement and the HOPE Scholarship.
Bethel said there is no way to estimate how much HOPE will be enriched because the state doesn't have accurate figures on total sales for the machines now. That lack of information is one reason law-enforcement agencies favor the bill.
"The GBI supports this legislation because we believe it an effective way to regulate these Class B coin-operated machines as well as an effective way to detect and investigate those who use these machines in an illegal manner," said GBI spokesman John Bankhead.
The number of votes against the bill included legislators who thought it was too strict and those who considered it not strict enough.
"You're talking about putting mom-and-pop operations that have been going on for 40 and 50 years out of business," said Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, the only one to speak against the bill outright.
Others wanted to ban the point-accumulating games completely, like Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, who raised moral objections.
"I hope we don't justify doing wrong by saying, 'Yeah, it's for the HOPE Scholarship,'," he said, noting the toll on gambling addicts. "The way to help them, frankly, is to take away the convenience of the machines." Williams' amendment to completely ban the machines passed initially but eventually failed in a close re-vote when Bethel warned that the way it was worded would leave no regulation of the machines.
The bill easily passed the House last week 166-4, but changes the Senate made require it to be voted on there again. If the House disagrees with the Senate's version, a conference committee will negotiate the differences before it goes to Deal for his signature.