Gambling or not,sweepstakes arenot going away

Even gambling’s fiercest opponents have to grudgingly tip their cap to the innovators who power North Carolina’s video sweepstakes industry.

State laws are written and rewritten in futile attempts to shut sweepstakes centers down. Since the statutes go into great detail describing prohibited games, businessmen and their attorneys simply look for loopholes and change their software or purchase policies to stay a step ahead of the law.

Wilson’s Board of Adjustment recently approved a zoning request for a sweepstakes center, but Rodger Lentz, the city’s chief planning and development officer, explained that the board only considers land-use issues. Questions of legal compliance are left to law enforcement and prosecutors.

Once upon a time, video poker parlors welcomed customers who paid for the chance to win big bucks. A state crackdown gave us video sweepstakes — businesses that sell prepaid phone and internet cards and offer gameplay as a value-added incentive.

The third and fourth generations of sweepstakes incorporate games of skill in which players put their dexterity to the test for a chance to win money. As usual, players buy some ancillary product to try their luck — er, skill — instead of simply paying to play.

Courts are currently grappling with legal challenges involving game variations that sweepstakes centers say aren’t covered by state gambling bans. It’s a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole where the General Assembly passes a law, police use it to crack down on sweepstakes businesses and the nimble entrepreneurs keep popping back up, new and improved.

It’s a silly song-and-dance routine considering we have state-sanctioned gambling via the N.C. Education Lottery, which took in $1.972 billion in 2015 ticket sales.

Gambling bans are a surviving relic of centuries-old blue laws that created victimless crimes by punishing personal behavior. This needless intrusion into private life enjoys fragmented bipartisan support. Some conservatives want to keep gambling illegal because they feel it’s immoral or sinful, while some liberals support the bans to prevent poor people from losing their shirts on bad bets.

We all have our blind spots when it comes to gambling. Even some lawmakers who voted against the state lottery must have taken part in March Madness office pools. Anyone who’s ever bought a product primarily for the chance to win a prize, from a box of breakfast cereal to an overpriced “internet card,” is a gambler in our book.

It’s rank hypocrisy to give the seal of approval to government-run gambling and the thumbs-down to private businesses that offer long odds similar to the lottery’s. Taxing and regulating internet sweepstakes could generate massive revenue for public education.

Whether legislators like it or not, sweepstakes games aren’t going anywhere. Necessity is the mother of invention, and savvy businessmen will always find a way around the gambling law.

The General Assembly can’t stamp out sweepstakes gaming, but it can deal itself in for a cut of the action.

The Wilson Times