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Horse gambling beats long odds; passes South Carolina House

State Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, watches the vote board in the House as the final vote is taken on his horse racing gambling bill on Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Jeffrey Collins/AP
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AP
State Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, watches the vote board in the House as the final vote is taken on his horse racing gambling bill on Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

By JEFFREY COLLINS Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — It seemed like quite the longshot — a bill to expand gambling in conservative South Carolina sponsored by a Democrat passing the House where Republicans hold a super majority. But Rep. Russell Ott managed to cobble together a rare bipartisan alliance on a bill that would allow betting on horse races on a smartphone app. The 56-46 vote Wednesday was eye-opening in a state long opposed to gambling. Twenty-three years ago South Carolina shut down a nearly $3 billion video poker industry. Ott's bill still has long odds. It now goes to the Senate, where a similar measure has been on the floor since February. And Gov. Henry McMaster has vowed to veto any gambling expansion.

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — It seemed like quite the longshot when this year started — a bill to expand gambling in conservative South Carolina sponsored by a Democrat passing the House where Republicans hold a super majority.

But Rep. Russell Ott managed to cobble together a rare type of bipartisan alliance on a bill that would allow betting on horse races on a smartphone app.

Wednesday's 56-46 vote was eye-opening in a state long opposed to gambling. Twenty-three years ago South Carolina shut down a nearly $3 billion video poker industry cobbled together through court rulings instead of figuring out a way to fully regulate it.

Since then, the state allowed a lottery and has done some minor expanding of church raffles and bingo, but otherwise has refused to join the gambling boom in other places.

And Ott's bill still has long odds. It heads to the Senate, where a similar bill has been sitting on the floor since February, And if the Senate passed it, Gov. Henry McMaster campaigned against expanding any gambling in South Carolina in 2022 after his Democratic opponent made legalizing sports betting a key plank of his campaign.

McMaster's chief of staff had a one word response on Twitter to the bill's passage in the House: "nope."

"It was a longshot for sure," Ott said Thursday.

Forty to 50 years ago, during the heyday of the horse racing industry, South Carolina was known as a great place to train a horse or send it for the winter.

"I can remember as a child driving across the county and seeing pasture after pasture that was filled with horses," said Ott, who represents rural areas south of Columbia.

Up to three online companies could offer betting apps in South Carolina, under the bill. Bettors would have to already have money in an account.

The state would get a minimum of 10% of the revenue from the betting, but an appointed commission envisioned in the bill could negotiate more. Much of the money would go back to grants to encourage more horses to train in South Carolina and expand the equine industry, Ott said.

The wagering could earn the state from $385,000 to nearly $1.9 million a year, according to economists who forecast the state budget.

The 56 votes in the House for the bill were split between Democrats and Republicans. Nearly every vote against it came from Republicans, including many of the House's leadership.

Opponents leaned on what they said were the moral problems with gambling, citing people whose lives were ruined by buying excessive lottery tickets or back in the 1990s became hooked on video poker when 37,000 machines were spread across gas station back rooms and hastily built warehouses with partitions.

"Not many of you were here when video poker was infested in South Carolina," House Majority Leader Davey Hiott said, "We saw the terrible, terrible blight it put on this state."

Ott watched the House's voting board carefully Thursday for any House members who didn't vote the day before to come out against the bill. The outcome was nearly the same — allowing the proposal to just make it under the wire for a key deadline that would have made the bill harder to take up in the Senate.

Ott expects no matter what happens to his bill, South Carolina will find it harder to resist gambling both from the possible revenue it can collect and residents angry they can't wager from their home or stadium.

As proof, he showed some lawmakers a map of the state with large splotches of color around major cities where people had tried to access a gambling app to place a bet on the Super Bowl or Kentucky Derby but were denied because of their location in South Carolina where it remains illegal.

Ott several times ticked off all the other things people do in a way gamble, whether it's the state lottery, a church raffle, investing in the stock market or a farmer planting seeds in the ground and hoping for just the right amount of rain and sun.

"We should legalize this in some form or fashion because farmers shouldn't have all the fun," Ott said.