Owens: video sweeps bill critical to budget support

Posted June 21, 2012

— Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, said today that his support for the Republican-crafted budget compromise may be contingent on whether lawmakers agree to legalize and tax video sweepstakes machines.

The legislature has twice tried to outlaw the games and twice courts have offered conflicting rulings on whether the restrictions are legal or not. North Carolina's state Supreme Court is expected to hear the cases this fall.

Until those rulings come down, Owens said the state should tax the sweepstakes machines as roughly 50 cities already do across the state. Even if the Supreme Court sides with the state, he said, further litigation is expected and the machines would likely stay in business until those lawsuits were finished.

"It comes down to whether we want to capture the revenue," Owens said. "We might also slow them down a little bit but they're going to be there." 

Owens is a Democrat but a key vote on the budget. If Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, vetoes the measure, Owens' vote would be crucial in overriding that veto. Asked if his vote in a veto override could come down to the video sweepstakes bill, Owens said, "Absolutely.

"If the sweepstakes comes through, there may not be a veto," he observed. That's because the extra money from sweepstakes could put money into education that Perdue says she wants to see. 

Although Perdue has said she wants to shut down the sweepstakes machines, earlier this year she came out in support of taxing them as a way to raise money for K-12 education. 

This bill has a hard road to travel if it is to become law, starting with the Finance Committee, which heard the measure this morning. Even Owens observed that if a committee vote were held today, it would likely fail.

That's because a coalition of social conservatives among Republicans -- who oppose increases to any type of gambling -- as well as liberal Democrats -- who see sweepstakes a frustrating crime and preying on the poor -- oppose the measure. 

"This is video larceny. This is not gambling," said Rep. Frank McGuirt, D-Union. 

Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake, said he also opposed the measure and said he had confidence that the supreme court would uphold the sweepstakes ban.

Owens would not say definitively that his support was contingent on the sweepstakes bill but said that if it didn't pass, "I'll have to weigh my conscience." 


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