Voters can weigh in on casino gambling in Tuesday’s primary

People who feel strongly about casino gambling may want to get a Democratic ballot at Tuesday’s primary.

One of the three questions on the Democratic ballot asks voters if they would approve casino gambling to fund the $20 billion backlog in infrastructure needs in South Carolina. The Democratic question is non-binding, simply a move so that Democrats can feel the public’s pulse on the issue. They want to know if voters would rather raise the infrastructure funding through gambling rather than through an increase in the gas tax.

While the question is obliquely worded -- asking voters if they would favor modernizing the state’s gaming laws to get the infrastructure funds -- it means casino gambling.

“It’s no secret that allowing casinos to operate in the Myrtle Beach area would create countless good jobs, bring in millions in new tax revenue, and allow us to finally repair the state’s crumbling roads and bridges,” Tyler Jones, spokesman for the S.C. House Democratic Caucus, wrote in an email.

Jones said that while the question on the ballot came from the Caucus, members have not taken an official position on the issue.

That may be so, but area officials have various opinions about casino gambling. Most say the state should move slowly and carefully on the road to casino gambling.

“It does create jobs,” said Marc Jordan, CEO of the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce.

He is personally against casino gambling, he said, but he recalls what happened in one Mississippi county after casino gambling took up residence.

“Suddenly their schools had money,” said Jordan, who was with the Memphis, Tenn., chamber of commerce at the time. “Suddenly there were jobs. Suddenly there was construction.”

He said the downside is said to include corruption that comes with casinos and reputed mob involvement, although he admitted he couldn’t verify either.

What he did see, though, was that a lot of trained people left the Memphis area to work in the casinos or businesses that sprung up because of them.

Jordan said it would make it harder to sell the Grand Strand as a family destination.

“I don’t think it would be the brand we’re trying to promote,” he said.

Brad Dean, CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said that while casino gambling has been a topic among board members in the past, it hasn’t come up in recent years.

The Rev. Ted Ragsdale of Faith Presbyterian Church, like Jordan, is definitely against casino gambling.

“There are times when someone has to say to people, ‘This will not help you,’” he said.

He recalled watching an elderly resident of a local campground take his pension check each month to a video poker parlor and sit there playing until his money ran out. Then he would have to scrimp on everything else, including food, for the rest of the month.

“He died at the video poker business,” he said.

Ragsdale said he still regrets not urging the man to quit the poker tables.

“I chide myself,” he said. “He needed a brother’s keeper.”

Members of the Horry County legislative delegation are for the most part non-commital about their personal feelings toward casino gambling, but all said that issue would need to be thoroughly vetted.

“The devil’s in the details,” said Sen. Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach.

Hembree said there are only so many dollars to go into gambling in South Carolina and legislators would want to make sure that casino gambling wouldn’t take away from the lottery money that helps fund education.

“Obviously as a state we are looking at how to fund infrastructure,” said Rep. Mike Ryhal, R-Myrtle Beach. “There’s lots of ideas out there and we’re going to need to look at them.”

Rep. Tracy Edge, R-North Myrtle Beach, said that he thinks people along the Grand Strand might be more inclined than in other parts of the state to like the idea of casino gambling.

At first he said he didn’t think it would be approved in the rest of the state, but after thinking about it for a minute, he said, “I don’t know.”

He said it would need to be carefully regulated, though, and those regulations would need to be written before the first casino opened.

Legalizing it, Edge said, would require a change in the state’s constitution and that would require approval by a referendum.

Edge said he would support putting a referendum on casino gambling on the ballot at some point.

The casino question is one of two pertaining to gaming the Democrats will ask those who choose their ballot. The other asks voters if each state should be able to allow or not and regulate online gaming.

Hembree said that he could support casino gambling if “the numbers work.”

“I think it could work in our area,” he said.