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S.C. democrats plan gambling bill

Two S.C. Democrats will propose opening the state to casinos, sports betting and other gambling in order to jump-start tourism and pay for education, infrastructure and tax relief.

State Reps. Boyd Brown, D-Fairfield, and Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, have drafted a bill proposing a constitutional amendment, which would require the approval of voters, to add South Carolina to the list of states including Nevada, Mississippi and others that allow various forms of gambling.

The two plan to introduce the bill next week. However, it faces stiff odds of passing despite indications the idea is popular with large numbers of S.C. voters.

Key Republicans - who control the S.C. House and Senate - say they oppose the idea, as does the state's largest religious denomination, Southern Baptists.

But Brown and Sellers say they hope to cobble together a coalition of Democrats, who might swallow gambling and the increased revenue it would produce for the state to head off more budget cuts, and libertarian Republicans, who think government has no business telling adults what they can or cannot do.

The goal is to pass a bill similar to legislation that has passed in Pennsylvania, allowing a county to choose how much - if any - gambling it wants to permit, Brown said.

For instance, Brown said a coastal county could choose to allow a resort casino while steeplechase-mad Aiken or Kershaw counties could opt only for pari-mutuel betting on horse racing.

"We need to look at other ways to generate revenue without taxing the citizens of South Carolina," Brown said. "If a county doesn't want it, they don't have to have it."

Brown said his intent is not to turn any S.C. city into Las Vegas, adding his bill would limit the number of gambling sites.

The bill specifically would forbid video poker in an effort to avoid reopening the contentious political and legal battle that surrounded that industry, abolished a decade ago.

Brown said gambling likely would hurt the state's sale of lottery tickets - the only form of gambling now legal - so the added gambling revenues could be used to pay for education as well as infrastructure and tax cuts.

The bill does not outline how increased gambling would be taxed by the state. That would be worked out at a later date.

The idea of allowing more gambling in South Carolina as a way to raise state revenues has simmered as lawmakers face the interconnected problems of a $700 million shortfall in the state's budget for next year and lingering high unemployment, 10.5 percent in January.

Allowing resort casinos would create jobs in construction and services, Brown said.

The proposal faces an uphill battle.

A constitutional amendment requires approval from two-thirds of lawmakers. In addition, the Senate's debate on charity raffles - which took weeks - and home-poker games earlier this session showed many lawmakers are concerned about opening the door even an inch to more legalized gambling.

"If they want to be like Nevada, they should move to Nevada," said state Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, adding he would oppose legalizing more gambling. "It's going to ruin the family atmosphere that has made South Carolina famous. ... The public is going to be resistant to wide-open gambling."

House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, agreed. "I do not have an interest in that."

Some S.C. voters may, however.

Asked how they would patch the state's budget earlier this year, readers of The State selected more legalized gambling as their second-most popular option, ranking behind raising the cigarette tax to $1 a pack.

"We can tailor it in a fashion that everybody is pleased," Sellers said. "It's going to get heard. Too many people are interested."