South's Antigambling Fervor Is Abating

Newcomers, desire for revenue prompt more 'Bible belt' states to legalize games of chance

Over the past decade, while states from Oregon to Connecticut began legalizing a wider array of gambling methods, games of chance have held only a slippery foothold in the South.

In Tennessee, for instance, a 160-year-old constitutional ban on lotteries still prohibits even charity cake raffles.

But in recent years, amid an influx of newcomers - and as nearby states fill their coffers with gambling proceeds - the resolve of a region steeped in strait-laced Baptist teachings has begun to waver. Now, it seems the prospect of easy money is so appealing that even the "Bible belt" is buckling.

From Virginia to Alabama, state lawmakers will be taking up questions about lotteries, horse racing, and video poker when their legislative sessions begin this month.

"The Southeast is the last to fight these battles, and because they're last, there is evidence that has accumulated in other states [on the pitfalls of gambling] that can be used as ammunition against it," says Bernie Horn of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling (NCALG) in Washington.

The most intense legislative battles will be in Nashville and Columbia, S.C.

In Nashville, pressure to change the state Constitution to allow a lottery is as high as it's ever been, lawmakers say. Tennessee is bordered by numerous states that allow gambling. Missouri and Mississippi have riverboat gambling. Kentucky and Virginia have state lotteries. In North Carolina, the South's first Indian reservation casino opened in November. Georgia's state lottery began funding a free college education for B students in 1993. And Arkansas hosts one of the most successful dog tracks in the country.

"Lotteries are popular, they're voluntary, and they surround Tennessee," says state Sen. Steve Cohen, a Democrat. "It's a mistake for Tennessee not to give the people the freedom to decide" whether they want a lottery.

Many gambling-related resolutions are expected to reach the floor of the General Assembly this legislative term. They call for everything from a constitutional convention on lotteries to a bill that would ease the arrival of the state's first horse-betting track.

Afraid of losing out

Tennesseans are most concerned with Georgia's much-heralded HOPE scholarships, in which lottery proceeds pay for students to attend in-state colleges. Many plans for a Tennessee lottery earmark state earnings to be spent the same way.

"If we don't keep our best and brightest at home, eventually we won't have a trained work force," says Senator Cohen. "I'm for the lottery because I'm a realist."

Pulling the plug on poker?

In South Carolina, the issue is video poker. A loophole in legislation allowed video gambling to begin in the late 1980s, and the state's courts have protected the practice since. But the $1.7 billion industry is virtually unregulated and untaxed.

A half-dozen state senators have vowed to introduce legislation to clamp down, and the issue has become a major one in South Carolina's governor's race. The GOP governor has already asked for a study on the need for services for people addicted to gambling and is expected to propose antigambling measures in this month's State of the State address. "Gambling's not good for South Carolina," says Gary Karr, Gov. David Beasley's spokesman. "It's not the kind of family atmosphere we want to to have here."

But experts say once any type of gambling gains a foothold, it is tough to remove it because the pro-gambling lobby is so strong. Polls show state voters are split, 47 percent opposed to video poker and 46 percent in favor.

"It's very unlikely in the short term that any state is going to allow any new form of gambling," says NCALG's Mr. Horn. "But as far as rolling back gambling that already exists? Boy, that's hard."

Further evidence of gambling's spread in the South is the casino that opened up in western North Carolina on the Cherokee Indian reservation in November. There, Harrah's Entertainment is managing an $82 million gambling and entertainment complex that offers upscale restaurants and 1,800 video-gambling games.

In 1995, after the US Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the tribe opened a ramshackle room for video gambling and bingo. This fall, the casino went glitz. But because it's in the gambling-wary South, it isn't exactly Vegas-style: There's no alcohol, no roulette wheels, and no dice.

In Mississippi gambling has become firmly rooted. In Biloxi, what began as a new form of entertainment limited to riverboats has exploded into the country's third-largest gambling center. Riverboats are now often closely connected to shore-front hotels. Two new 30-story hotels are in the works.

Amid the boom, studies show pawn shops have proliferated, as gambling patrons turn over valuables or even purchase new items on credit and then immediately pawn them for cash.

It's one example of the South beginning to grapple with the issues that come with gambling - something the Northeast and West have more experience with.

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