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  • Alexander Thompson

Post and Courier: After hourslong fight, SC House narrowly passes horse-race gambling bill


COLUMBIA — A bill that would legalize online wagering on horse racing to fund grants for the state’s beleaguered equine industry squeaked across the finish line April 5 in the S.C. House of Representatives.


The bill marks something of a watershed moment in a state and Legislature that have been strongly resistant to legal gambling for decades. The bill’s supporters said the 54-44 vote was the first time in recent memory a chamber of the Legislature has approved legal gambling — other than nonprofit raffles — since it created the lottery in 2001 after a referendum the year before.


The 10-vote separation was the closest of any bill so far this session, and the legislation passed over the vehement objections of Republicans who oppose gambling on moral grounds, including several high-ranking members of the House Republican leadership.


It passed with the support of 27 Democrats and 27 Republicans. Forty-three Republicans and a conservative Democrat voted against it. The vote was taken at 8:23 p.m., so many representatives had gone home, but an unusual number members in attendance simply did not cast votes.


“I am just happy for so many people across the state that are working in this industry that get up every day and go and train horses or go and breed horses,” Russell Ott, a St. Matthews Democrat and the bill’s leading champion, said after the 4½ hours of back and forth concluded. “I think this gives them hope.”


The South Carolina equine industry has been in decline for the past 50 years, in part due to the broader decline of horse racing. But it’s also because other states have offered incentives for horse breeders and owners to stable horses in their states, often using gambling proceeds.


Owners of equine training centers have pressed lawmakers to pass the bill as a way to help revive their industry without directly investing taxpayer dollars.

The bill would create an appointed commission that would license three online wagering vendors to accept bets on horse races. The vendors would pay the commission a minimum of 10 percent of the projected yearly revenue they make on South Carolinians’ wagers.


Ott argued vendors will likely offer to pay the state more than 10 percent to compete for one of the three licenses the commission will give out.


Even at the minimum 10 percent tax rate, wagers could raise between $385,000 and $1.9 million each year for the commission, according to the state’s budget forecasters.


Most of that money would go to grants for the equine industry.


Supporters have indicated their priority would be to create incentives to attract horse owners back to the state, but the money could also be spent investing in horse racing events in South Carolina, maintaining horseback riding trails or funding equine therapy for veterans.


The bill was unusual in several respects. Normally, only bills that are already assured to pass make it to the House floor, but supporters acknowledged as the House gaveled into session on the morning of April 5 that they were not certain they had the votes.


All morning, Ott could be seen ducking in and out of the House chamber as he lobbied his colleagues and another supportive legislator, Rep. Matt Leber, R-Johns Island, made the rounds in the chamber counting votes with a printed list of members.


It was also notable in that House leadership allowed the bill to get a floor debate even though Majority Leader Davey Hiott, Assistant Majority Leader Jay West and Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope voted against the bill. Speaker Murrell Smith went home sick and didn’t attend.


Opposition to the bill was spearheaded by staunch social conservative Rep. John McCravy, arguing the bill is “unvetted” and would increase gambling addiction.

The Greenwood Republican said he supports the horse industry, “except I don’t think we need to use that as an excuse to put ... betting in South Carolina.”


McCravy also seemed intent on testing the stamina of the bill’s supporters. He proposed more than 20 amendments and often spoke for the maximum time allowed on each, extending the debate past sunset.


Hiott recalled the era of legal video poker in the 1990s and the social ills that came with it.


“We’re fixing to open that back up, folks,” he said. “This is the first step.”


Supporters rejected those critiques, arguing that those who want to gamble, addicted or not, are already gambling legally on the lottery or the stock market, or illegally by using an offshore bookie or out-of-state address.


Opposition to the bill was spearheaded by staunch social conservative Rep. John McCravy, arguing the bill is “unvetted” and would increase gambling addiction.

The Greenwood Republican said he supports the horse industry, “except I don’t think we need to use that as an excuse to put ... betting in South Carolina.”


McCravy also seemed intent on testing the stamina of the bill’s supporters. He proposed more than 20 amendments and often spoke for the maximum time allowed on each, extending the debate past sunset.


Hiott recalled the era of legal video poker in the 1990s and the social ills that came with it.


“We’re fixing to open that back up, folks,” he said. “This is the first step.”


Supporters rejected those critiques, arguing that those who want to gamble, addicted or not, are already gambling legally on the lottery or the stock market, or illegally by using an offshore bookie or out-of-state address.



There were moments of levity in an otherwise long and contentious day in the House chamber.


“Mr. McCravy, could you go for two more minutes?” Rep. Bill Herbkersman queried the bill’s chief opponent at one point during his many hours at the podium. “We’ve got an over/under going,” referencing the betting term.

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