LUMBERTON — Players, owners of video parlors, municipal officials and law enforcement officers are watching to see how the dice will land regarding the future of sweepstakes gambling in North Carolina after a statewide ban took effect Thursday.
How long the ban will last is a bad bet as parlors scramble to update their systems to bring them in line with the law. In Lumberton, signs are popping up on locked parlor doors advising customers that the businesses are temporarily closed, to look for “updates” and some even predict a reopening date.
The closings followed a state Supreme Court ruling on Dec 14 that the games are not protected as free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
For years, amusement machine companies, software developers, and firms that market long distance phone and Internet services have argued that the video sweepstakes do not constitute gambling because the prizewinners are predetermined and not a result of chance.
Law enforcement is taking a wait-and-see approach to enforcing the ban.
“We need to contact our prosecutors and see how they want us to investigate it and do the charges. We will know more soon,” Robeson County Sheriff Kenneth Sealey said. “… One thing is for sure. If the legislature and Supreme Court say we must enforce it, then we have to enforce it to the fullest extent of the law.”
Local municipalities, including several in Robeson County, stand to lose revenue generated from fees.
According to Linda Oxendine, the director of Public Services and Tax Collector for Lumberton, the city receives approximately $380,000 in yearly revenue from fees brought in by the 18 establishments currently offering sweepstakes gaming in the city. The city charges $5,000 for a privilege license for gaming, and an additional $2,500 for each machine.
Currently the city’s fees are being challenged in court by several businesses that contend they are exorbitant.
Councilman Erich Hackney says the North Carolina Education Lottery is enough of a gamble for residents.
“I personally was never for the sweepstakes machines in respect to the gambling aspect,” Hackney said. “It’s not appropriate for a community with a lot of unemployed people.”
Other municipalities have taken a different approach, lowering fees in an effort to create jobs and generate revenue.
Red Springs has approximately 50 consoles located throughout gaming centers, gas stations and in the backs of pawn shops. During the current fiscal year, the town has collected nearly $115,000 in fees for its General Fund.
Mac McKeithan owns Winner’s Paradise in Red Springs, which has 18 machines. He said it cost him $60,000 to open up, a figure that includes fees and the purchase of equipment.
“At a minimum they should let us operate until our licenses expire,” McKeithan said. “They don’t have to reimburse me, just let me operate under the license I have and if they aren’t going to do that, they should prorate a refund.”
McKeithan said his business is similar to the education lottery.
“The players are upset,” McKeithan said. “They believe they should be able to spend their money how they want to. They think it is no worse than scratch-off tickets or the lottery.”
If the ban stands, it’s estimated that more than 10,000 people will lose their jobs in a state with the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the country.
Hackney isn’t sympathetic.
“Everybody that bought and installed those machines knew going into this that there was the possibility that the courts would rule these machines illegal,” Hackney said. ” … If they did not prepare, that would be their fault, not the city’s, in respect to unemployment. You were only hired temporarily until there was a decision that this would be permanent. Every one of those employees should have known their positions were on borrowed time until the courts ruled.”
Meanwhile, players are idled.
“People get peace of mind being away from home and work by playing,” said Samona McKinley, 34, of Lumberton. “I feel like it should be up to the people who play to make the decision. They shouldn’t make up our minds for us.”
McKinley has a Plan B.
“If it stops here I’ll travel to South Carolina, but I’d hate to do that,” she said. “I’d have to travel more for the excitement. I’d rather give the money to my hometown.”
Janice Thompson, 41, of Lumberton, said she has played the games for years as a means of recreation.
“It’s right around the corner,” Thompson said. “I don’t get why they’d want to give my business to another state, but I’ll go where I have to go to play.
“I play the education lottery, too. There’s no difference. Your chances of winning are higher on the computer. It’s your money, you should be able to play what you want. Anything can become addictive. That’s a chance you take with anything.”
Abbi Overfelt, the editor of The St. Pauls Review and The Red Springs Citizen, contributed to this story.