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Poker News: May 12, 2006

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Upping the ante: Senate sends video poker ban back to Black

The state Senate unanimously passed a ban on video poker Thursday, upping the ante for House Speaker Jim Black, who has rejected four other attempts since 2000 to outlaw the games and been linked in recent months to state and federal investigations of the industry.

"It's time for us to drive the final nail in the coffin of video poker and put it to rest," Sen. Charlie Albertson, D-Duplin, the bill's primary sponsor, said in an address to his chamber.

The Senate sent the bill to the House with a 42-0 vote, but similar proposals have never made it out of that body.

Black, D-Mecklenburg, suggested Thursday that he would not oppose a vote on the ban - if it comes out of committee. The measure has yet to be referred to a panel.

"I'm not doing anything to prevent discussions on video poker. ... I don't know why everyone thinks I'm going to step in the way of it," Black said. "Whatever the committee's action is, we'll deal with it on the floor."

The Democratic leader's past efforts to protect the industry came as Black was taking in thousands of dollars in campaign donations from video poker interests. During the 2002 and 2004 election cycles, he was the General Assembly's top recipient of industry contributions, taking in a total of $167,000, according to Democracy North Carolina. He is now tied to ongoing state and federal investigations into the industry.

Black reiterated Thursday that he does not support the industry in self-interest, but rather because legal video poker generates thousands of jobs across the state. Also, after conferring with a lawyer in the House, he raised a new objection to the Senate bill, pointing to the section protecting the Cherokee tribal casino in western North Carolina.

There are "legal implications for trying to exempt one group," Black said.

The North Carolina Amusement Machine Association is pushing the General Assembly to simply improve the 2000 law that regulated the industry.

Richard Frye, a spokesman for the organization, suggested that the state could tax electronic gaming operators $500 each year - $5 million total for the 10,000 legal machines in North Carolina - to finance a statewide, uniform enforcement policy.

"The illegal operators don't contribute a dime to the state's economy," Frye said. "The rest of us are here are making some money and paying taxes. We're pretty tired of getting lumped together with all those people."

Dozens of county sheriffs have urged the General Assembly to ban video gaming, citing the proliferation of unregistered machines and the difficulty of policing the industry.

"I saw the devastation that it caused to families," said Rep. Joe Kiser, R-Lincoln, a former sheriff. "It is the most addictive form of gambling."

Two weeks ago, the FBI, state Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement and the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office led raids that confiscated $1 million in cash, along with 100 machines at houses and businesses belonging to Funtime Amusements, a video game provider. Eight people were charged in the investigation, triggered by suspected illegal payouts.

But Black scoffed Thursday at law enforcement officials who say that the poker machines are difficult to track, and called the Cumberland County raids "absolutely politically motivated," noting that the dramatic arrests and seizures came just days before the primary election.

Cumberland County Sheriff Earl Butler said Thursday that the investigation began a year ago.

Two months ago, the state Board of Elections, while clearing Black of knowingly taking unlawful donations, demanded that he return $5,500 in possibly illegal contributions from video poker interests. The elections board also asked the Wake County prosecutor to continue investigations into Black's ties to the industry.

Meanwhile, a federal grand jury is also collecting information about Black's involvement with the video poker industry.

Black has not been charged with any crimes.

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