Lawmakers right to close video gaming loophole

Lawmakers have finally closed a loophole being used to bring back video gambling to South Carolina.

The fix, signed into law March 22 by Gov. Nikki Haley, was relatively simple and came in a section of the law that allows some businesses to hold sweepstakes. In short, lawmakers said to owners of these sweepstakes machines: "We mean you."

Law enforcement officials had insisted the machines were illegal, but courts across the state had split on whether these types of devices were exempt from the 2000 law banning video gaming machines.

Just like the old video poker machines, the new sweepstakes machines were popping up in convenience stores, bars and Internet cafes or parlors. In Beaufort County, three businesses featuring the games were raided and shut down in 2011. In February 2012, a Beaufort magistrate ruled the machines were illegal gambling devices.

Some of the Internet sweepstakes games advertised themselves as business centers that sell copying and fax services or Internet time, and customers were given a chance to play video poker, keno or blackjack on a computer for a chance to win prizes. The games also were offered through stand-alone kiosks in convenience stores that sell phone minutes and then allow people to play the games. In Beaufort County, customers could donate to a charity or request up to four free entries a day to get the opportunity to play.

Magistrate Darlene Smith ruled the machines were illegal because they offered games of chance and customers paid to play, even if they didn't insert money or tokens into the machines.

These types of operations keep popping up because there's a lot of money at stake. Video poker was a nearly $3 billion industry before it was shut down in 2000. State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel reminded lawmakers when he testified before a Senate subcommittee earlier this year that video poker led to government corruption in its previous incarnation.

"They claim they have Internet service or copier services," Keel told senators. "But everyone we've interviewed who is caught in one of these places says they have come for one purpose -- to gamble. They're all games of chance. They're not games of skill."

Whether or not you bought the argument that these businesses were offering sweepstakes akin to that offered by McDonald's and its Monopoly sweepstakes, lawmakers were right to clarify what they meant when they prohibited video gambling more than a decade ago.

Still, don't be surprised when another iteration of video gaming shows up. Too much money is at stake.