WRAL Investigates

Sweepstakes debate continues to fracture

Posted June 16, 2010 2:02 p.m. EDT
Updated June 16, 2010 7:12 p.m. EDT

— As the computers glow and simulated slots keep multiplying across North Carolina, the debate over how to handle the so-called sweepstakes cafés continues to fracture.

The gaming industry invites taxation and regulation, and customers crave the freedom to keep playing, but sheriffs and some lawmakers want to ban them like they did video poker.

“Who am I to tell you how to spend your money? That's your choice,” said sweepstakes customer Linwood Dale.

The games, which are sprouting up in strip shopping centers across the state, sell players blocks of time to play games of chance on computers or cell phones. The odds are long, but players who win can get a cash payout.

Although opponents have compared the computer terminals to video poker, recent court rulings have determined the businesses are legal.

“They're proliferating like poisonous mushrooms. It's like wildfire,” said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake.

Stein said he expects his colleagues will vote to outlaw the machines, but House Democrats can't find consensus right now, so nothing may happen.

“We have a variety of opinions and we'll just see if we address it. We're not sure yet how we're going to proceed with that,” said Majority Leader Rep. Hugh Holliman.

“We need to see what the court says about it. What's their interpretation? And that will give us better direction in which to go on,” said Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth.

Efforts to ban video sweepstakes games "will cost nearly 10,000 jobs and hurt the state's economy," according to the Entertainment Group of North Carolina. The group "supports state oversight, state enforcement and state collection of tax revenues."

The confusion leaves local communities scrambling. Some are rezoning and taxing to try and control sweepstakes growth. In many cases, they're now spreading to convenience stores.

Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, made waves by asking the lottery to consider taking over the games. He argues doing nothing can't be an option.

“We've got to do something. Just to ignore it is not leadership and to ignore it … it's not going to go away,” he said.

“It is incumbent upon us at the General Assembly, I think, to end the confusion, to end the confusion that the courts have created,” Stein said.

Ban or tax, that confusion means the games go on for now.