CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's "game over" for sweepstakes parlors and video gambling under a bill passed by the North Carolina Legislature.
Lawmakers have voted overwhelmingly to ban the games by December 1 and at least one prosecutor is planning raids in advance of the deadline, reasoning that courts will support earlier video gambling laws now that the Legislature has clarified its intent.
But the fight is far from over.
The sweepstakes cafes or parlors have sprung up around North Carolina in storefronts and strip malls -- as many as 900 of them by one count. The games mimic slot machines or video poker but the odds are pre-set as part of a "sweepstakes" in which players buy phone time or computer time to get credits to keep playing. Critics, including some sheriffs and prosecutors, say that looks a lot like gambling.
Industry spokesman William Theavos of Charlotte, leader of the Entertainment Group of North Carolina, a trade association, issued a statement saying the industry is disappointed in the lawmakers' vote but vowing to continue to engage lawyers and technology in a search for ways to remain in the sweepstakes business.
Union County District Attorney John Snyder says there's little ambiguity in the new law.
"This legislation, plus what's already on the books, is so clear that if it looks like a poker game or a slot machine, it's illegal," said Snyder.
Snyder says he plans to seize some of the machines and make more arrests this week, now that the legislature has clarified its intent.
Some lawmakers, including Rep. Becky Carney, a Democrat representing Mecklenburg County, wanted to put the sweepstakes under the state lottery and spend the money on schools. Rep. Carney spoke from the floor, telling colleagues, "I voted for the lottery and ladies and gentlemen this budget cycle we are using gambling money to keep teachers in the classroom."
Some polls touted by the sweepstakes lobby showed most voters agree -- they'd like the tax money.
But most lawmakers disagreed, saying the machines take more than they give back. Rep. Ray Warren, a Democrat representing Catawba and Alexander counties, told fellow lawmakers they should ban what he called "these machines of any type that create a gambling addiction within our citizens, prey upon the poor and create problems within our communities."
A spokeswoman for North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue says the governor will study the bill but she expects to sign it into law.