RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The North Carolina Legislature voted Wednesday to attempt tomake clear again that a 2006 ban on video poker also applies tocomputer-based sweepstakes games found at businesses inside stripmalls and old storefronts statewide.
In an 86-27 vote that gave final passage to the bill, the Houseagreed to the Senate's plan to eliminate by Dec. 1 the games thatgambling opponents say seduce players and take their money.
The measure now goes to Gov. Beverly Perdue. Press SecretaryChris Mackey said late Wednesday the governor is expected to signthe bill into law.
The vote followed more than two hours of impassioned debate thatcrossed party lines.
Sweepstakes centers have proliferated since at least two trialjudges blocked state agents and police from seizing the machines.The judges ruled that the video poker ban and an ensuing 2008 lawdesigned to close a loophole don't necessarily apply to the games.Those cases are pending.
Sweepstakes opponents said the Legislature meant to get rid ofthese kinds of machines, too. Wednesday's bill, they said, shouldleave little doubt of its intention.
"I'm tired of playing whack-a-mole with this industry," saidRep. Ray Rapp, D-Madison, one of the House's chief supporters ofthe ban. "We're trying to come back to you with a clear directivesaying, number one, it's gambling ... and number two, it'sbanned."
The industry has said getting rid of the games could do awaywith up to 10,000 jobs during the ongoing economic slump.Supporters of the games say they're not gambling but a form ofentertainment and marketing for Internet or phone time or officeservices. Machine opponents say the games, found at more than 900places statewide, are designed to get around the 2006 ban.
Neil Hoover of High Point, says the games enable his company's10 business service centers in the state to keep their doors openas they compete with places like The UPS Store. His outlets face anuncertain future.
"Without our sweepstakes, we probably won't be able to competewith those businesses. They're so much bigger than us," Hooversaid. "There are other states that actually welcome ourindustry."
Still, a large majority of lawmakers joined local lawenforcement officers and religious leaders in arguing thesweepstakes centers are essentially casinos with dozens of computerscreens where customers lose money in only a few clicks of themouse.
"This is an industry for people who do not have a choice, whoare addicted on gambling," said Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake.
Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle questionedwhether lawmakers should outlaw something that appeared to be aharmless form of entertainment to some but gambling to others. Rep.Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, tried unsuccessfully to get a motionheard that essentially would have delayed the bill until next yearand avoided a tough vote.
"I'm tired of being judged on whether I'm moral or not dependingon whether I support this bill," said Rep. Carolyn Justice,R-Pender.
Sixteen of the 18 black Democrats present voted against the ban.Many were among the most vocal opponents and complained theDemocratic leadership didn't give them the option to consider theletting the state regulate the machines and collect revenues thatwill be sorely needed next year.
Sweepstakes machine operators argue lawmakers should have leftthe games in place while the General Assembly studies the issue andreturn next year to pass a law that would generate state revenuesby licensing machines and owners. Amusement machine owners alsoargue it would be better to replace the video poker machine banthat took effect in July 2007 with legislation that would revivethe industry and give the state 20 percent of the revenues.
"We've not had an opportunity to look at some legislation thatsome would consider relevant," said Rep. Alma Adams, D-Guilford."I'm just really disturbed at what I've seen in some ways."
House Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, voted for the ban andexpressed his position to fellow House Democrats this week. Hackneytold reporters the ban was the only option that had the support ofa majority of members. Waiting until next year would have allowedthe industry to expand even more, he said.
"I didn't intimidate anybody. I jut announced my position, andthe majority ruled," Hackney told reporters after the vote.
The measure now would make it a misdemeanor for anyone tooperate a game. Repeat offenders could be found guilty of alow-grade felony punishable by eight months to 2 1/2 years inprison.
The bill's language would not outlaw arcade games and marketinggames by soft-drink companies and other retailers that require theconsumer to type in a code at a company's website.
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