EDITORIAL: Upping the ante for gambling machine payouts

Several convenience store owners have gotten themselves in a pickle -- a peculiar position created by Georgia’s General Assembly. Now, local and state law enforcement agencies have to fight a gambling war they had no part in creating, the cost of which is borne by the state’s taxpayers. In fact, even the store owners are caught in the middle of human nature and the law.

It’s perfectly legal to have Class B gaming machines (video poker) in a convenience store. However, it is against the law to distribute cash payouts. The winnings are supposed to be in store merchandise. But in the words of Capt. Earl Humphries of the Jones County Sheriff’s Office, “When you walk into a convenience store and you see six machines in the corner and there are five to six people playing them, they are not putting $20, $50, $100 in these machines when the off chance is that they are going to win a Coca-Cola and a pack of crackers.”

This latest bust is the largest in Bibb County history, but that doesn’t mean the gambling problem and cash payouts is solved. Other locations still make illegal payments to winners and we look to law enforcement to crack down on them, too. But they are also caught in the middle. It’s against the law to pay cash for winnings, but what’s the penalty? It’s only a misdemeanor. It becomes a matter of effective use of resources. Should law enforcement go after such crimes when there are other crimes that have real victims, not people sitting around on stools throwing their money away?

This investigation as it proceeds is upping the ante. The businesses stand to lose much more than just a slap on the wrist. They could lose their livelihoods. Now that the Georgia Lottery Corporation oversees the machines, it can suspend, as it has, the stores’ licenses for not only the Class B machines but their ability to sell lottery tickets. And they could forfeit any assets that are decided to have come from gambling machine proceeds. Some of the stores have been closed for more than a month. A receiver has been appointed to manage the accused businesses until the cases are settled. That may take a while. In the meantime store owners have bills to pay and their entire investment, to the point of their arrest, is at risk.

These machines have had a corrosive impact on this state. South Carolina experienced the same situation before it kicked the machines out. However, they migrated to Georgia and into thousands of convenience stores, and their influence coalesces under Georgia’s Gold Dome. We understand how hypocritical our gambling laws are. The only real gambling allowed is the state-run lottery.

While the measure passed in the 2013 session giving the lottery corporation oversight was a step in the right direction, the only way to end video poker cash payouts is to outlaw the machines.