Opinion: Ga. should ban video gambling machines

There’s a photo I keep with me. It’s of a young mother playing a video gambling machine while her baby sits in an infant carrier behind her back. A local elected official texted me this photo because he knows that I’m committed to the fight against illegal, predatory gambling machines on our community.

This mother, with her baby beside the video gambling machine isn’t alone. That’s why I have joined with four fellow district attorneys to call on the state legislature to ban these machines.

Make no mistake, the video gambling industry is not just a problem for those who are addicted and their families. This multibillion-dollar enterprise is a threat to public safety for all of us.

I recently met a video gambling victim who is on the verge of eviction and gambled away her retirement because she can’t control her addiction. Even after being the victim of two armed robberies while playing, including having a gun pointed in her face, she continues to play. She called our office after being in court for her eviction and seeing so many others there who she recognized as fellow gambling machine addicts.

This woman, who holds a college bachelor’s degree, describes the blinking lights and bright colors of the machine as “hypnotizing” and impossible for her to break away from.

She told me that she tries to “pray harder and get closer to God” to beat her addiction, but it’s not a fair fight for her or for the mother who kept her baby by the video gambling machine because every push of the button is designed to be addictive.

Video gambling machines are far more addictive than other forms of gambling because they are programmed to reward the player with wins in the short term as an inducement to keep them playing. But over the long haul, the machine always wins and the players always lose.

Store owners have little incentive to stop feeding this addiction. One store can generate millions in revenue. While it is illegal for stores to make cash payouts, the GBI tells me better than 50% do. In fact, in a recent operation, 100% of over two dozen stores investigated made illegal cash payouts when tested. And the stores that make illegal cash payouts have more customers than they can handle. That’s why Georgians played more than $2 billion on these machines in the last year, and that number continues to grow.

In my central Georgia district alone, more than $200 million is spent annually on video gambling. That’s about $1,000 for every man, woman and child. It equals an estimated $20,000 per year spent by each video gambler, more than the take-home pay for the average Macon job.

In a shameful political sleight-of-hand, legislation passed to “regulate” the industry simply provided a cloak of legitimation with no real means of enforcement. There are only eight field agents and two supervisors in the GBI’s commercial gambling unit. While these agents do an outstanding job, that’s simply not enough to cover a multibillion-dollar, politically connected industry. Based on the numbers, that’s not even enough to cover Macon.

In July, I announced new criminal warrants and a civil racketeering lawsuit in one of the largest raids in the history of our state. Let me be clear: all those charged are innocent until a court finds otherwise; however, the results of our multi-agency investigation underscore the enormity of the problem. One of those arrested was a Bibb County Sheriff’s deputy and another is an enforcement agent for the Georgia Department of Revenue — a sworn peace officer with a badge. He was a supervisor who directed other agents.

The odds are so stacked against enforcing illegal payouts, that I’ve come to the conclusion that the state legislature must change the law to ban video gambling machines completely.

I have no doubt that the gambling industry will continue to reach into their deep pockets to fill campaign coffers of powerful politicians, fund fancy lawyers and finance a PR machine designed to distract from their illegal activities and take the focus off the mother and baby in the photo. But, as District Attorney, you can rest assured that I will continue to use all the tools I have available to fight for the real victims and urge the legislature to ban these machines that are wreaking havoc in our communities.

David Cooke is Macon Judicial Circuit District Attorney.

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