In what could be a classic case of be careful what you wish for, several Internet cafes have fled Lumberton because they couldn’t afford licensing fees for the fiscal year that began on Friday.
That was the city’s intent last year when it adopted fees that were plainly prohibitive for most if not all of these small businesses — $5,000 for each business, and an additional $2,500 for each machine, making the yearly bill $30,000 for a business with a modest 10 machines.
According to city officials, the departure of the businesses could mean about $400,000 in lost revenue. Three of the larger businesses account for more than $300,000 of that revenue. That money, if it had been collected, could have provided significant tax relief to city property owners — but it’s not spilled milk, as it was never going to have been collected.
Some if not most of the cafes won’t travel far, and will instead set up business outside the city, but inside the county, where the fees are basically negligible. So their patrons will only have a little longer drive to throw away their money on about the worst bet offered anywhere in the gaming industry.
Gambling has been tricky for government in North Carolina, which sanctioned the lottery under the guise of raising money to rehabilitate education, a promise that has yet to be kept. The state then successfully moved to outlaw video poker, but that created more of a law enforcement headache than anything else as many of the machines were simply shoved out of sight to operate in the dark.
The state so far hasn’t handled the curve ball that Internet cafes, which offer gambling under the cloak of selling computer time, has thrown their way. The industry is fighting laws to shut down Internet cafes, but it’s anyone’s guess how long before the court process will conclude — and what the verdict will be.
In the meantime, plenty of people shove money into a machine that is programmed to always come out ahead. But gambling, if nothing else, is addictive, so there will always be those willing to play.
All this underscores that government just doesn’t work well as a Big Brother, failing miserably when it attempts to legislate behavior. That doesn’t mean the City Council erred in adopting laws designed to chase these cafes out of town. The council in fact has a duty to act in ways to promote the kind of city it believes residents prefer — and if gambling establishments are a broken stitch in that fabric, good riddance.
But if the council acted with the belief that it could protect anyone from their own decisions, then a tired old lesson has been demonstrated yet again.