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  • Brian Hicks

Post and Courier: Opinion: Hicks: A plan to save the horse industry runs afoul of moral minority

The folks in South Carolina’s horse industry have pinned their hopes of a comeback on pari-mutuel betting.

So at least we know they’re already acquainted with the term “long shot.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to pass legislation that would allow up to three online betting sites to operate in South Carolina, a proposition that could provide millions of dollars in incentives to equine interests — a once-thriving business in this state.

In the past couple of decades, the number of horses stabled here and the number of trainers and blacksmiths plying their trade in South Carolina have plummeted. From Aiken to Camden, a way of life has been dying out, and some think this may be the best way to revive it.

“We’re just trying to infuse dollars into an industry that’s desperately been unattended to for a long time,” state Rep. Russell Ott, the bill’s sponsor, told The Post and Courier’s Alexander Thompson. “The more horses we have here means our stables are full, and that means that economy around the horses is flourishing.”

It’s a modest proposal to save an honest-to-goodness South Carolina tradition, and it should be a no-brainer. Because this isn’t controversial in most of the country. More than 40 states allow pari-mutuel betting; most have their own horse tracks, the rest allow off-track betting or online gambling.

South Carolina is one of the few states without any of that, and it’s no mystery why.

Ask anyone at the Statehouse about the prospects for any sort of legalized gambling, and you’ll hear the all-too-common refrain: Upstate lawmakers oppose it.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so tiresome. The “personal freedom” crowd inflicts its will on everyone else so brazenly it would make the most liberal nanny-stater blush.

Can’t legalize medical marijuana (because it’s a gateway drug), even though 37 other states do.

Got to wear kid gloves teaching children about slavery or civil rights (otherwise it might hurt someone’s feelings).

Can’t allow women to make their own health decisions, because they’re “pro-life” (but won’t wear masks to stop the spread of a killer virus or expand Medicaid because, well … tough).

Can’t allow casinos to operate here, because they are dens of sin. (But ask us about our favorite politician, the failed casino mogul!)

All of that, by the way, goes against public opinion polls of South Carolina voters. Which is enough to make you think that what these folks really want is the personal freedom to force their will on everyone else.

The moral stand against gambling is costing South Carolina hundreds of millions in annual tax revenue that states such as Mississippi and Louisiana rake in every year. Not too long ago, a Winthrop University poll found most S.C. voters would like to see casinos allowed so the revenue could be used to patch up our terrible roads.

Which isn’t a bad idea.

Pari-mutuel betting isn’t even in the same solar system of casinos, however; in fact, it’s pretty benign. What South Carolina officials have proposed is to simply allow three computer apps to operate in the state; there would be no brick-and-mortar gambling sites.

But the Upstate opposition to any gambling is staunch. These folks have so much sway they even managed to defy the federal government and force the poor Catawbas to build their casino in hedonistic North Carolina.

Which is causing its own set of problems, but that’s another story.

The pari-mutuel betting legislation unsurprisingly isn’t moving in the House yet, but the session is young, and there’s still some hope.

“I’m sensing a shift in responsiveness to this type of bill,” says state Rep. Spencer Wetmore, one of its co-sponsors. “Maybe people recognize the revenue benefits for the state and competitive benefits for our equine industry. Maybe it’s a reflection of the changes in the House after this last election.”

Perhaps she’s right. The Senate version passed out of committee recently, and the only opposition came from — guess — a couple of Upstate senators.

It’s a safe bet they’ll try to hold it up on the Senate floor, even though Sen. Katrina Shealy (one of the Senate bill’s sponsors) notes that does nothing but hurt the horse industry.

S.C. residents already bet online, she notes, and that money simply moves offshore without the state — or the industry — getting a rake.

But if the moral minority gets its way, the state will leave that money on the table … and watch an entire tradition creep ever closer to the glue factory.

And there’s absolutely nothing moral about that.


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