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WOSTER: The time when video lottery went black

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opinion Mitchell,South Dakota 57301
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WOSTER: The time when video lottery went black
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

Twenty years ago this summer, South Dakota legislative leaders and then-Gov. Walt Miller were still wondering how they'd make up more than $60 million the state treasury faced losing because video lottery had been ruled unconstitutional.


This is the month in 1994 when the bubbly music of video gambling terminals went silent for a time.

The ruling that brought the machines to a halt was a 4-1 decision by the South Dakota Supreme Court on June 22 of 1994, five years after the Legislature created the system of video gambling with electronic poker and blackjack terminals. Video lottery ranked as the second-leading revenue source for state government at the time, so the loss of its income was, well, daunting.

The ruling was in June. The plug wasn't pulled until August.

The court's majority essentially said that lotteries involved selling tickets and drawing for prizes. Video lottery, on the other hand, allowed players to make choices that could affect their level of success, so it was a game of chance, not a lottery. Games of chance were prohibited by the constitution.

To say it was a tumultuous period in the South Dakota experience with legal gaming would be too laid-back for even an old-time newspaper reporter. It was a crazy time, for decision makers, citizens, programs and news outfits.

The issue had been at a low, rolling boil almost from the day the first machine was placed in the first video lottery establishment. The high court's ruling reversed a lower court decision. It set the stage for a couple of budget-cutting special sessions and some wishful thinking that the high court might wait to shut down video gambling until after the November election.

Delaying the shutdown until the November vote, see, would give legislators time to craft a constitutional amendment making it clear that video gambling was something South Dakota citizens wanted. Some argued it would also give South Dakotans a real chance to express their opinion on video lottery. The thinking was that, having seen the games in action for a few years, people would have a better idea what video lottery was and what they really thought of it.

Members of the Supreme Court left no doubt that they understood the impact of their decision on budgets, businesses and citizens. Justice Robert Miller urged those adversely affected by the opinion not to blame the court. He also said, "When considering the devastating economic consequences to this state and its citizens, it is indeed unfortunate that our advice was not sought earlier.''

The games didn't go silent immediately upon the June 22 ruling, but they didn't continue to operate into November, either. The court ordered the plug pulled on Aug. 13. Attorney Gen. Mark Barnett had sought a rehearing of the June decision. The court rejected that and held to a 3 p.m. Aug. 13 end date.

"I think the ballgame is over essentially on Friday at 3,'' Barnett said after his rehearing was denied. He also said he was disappointed but not surprised. "A stay was a long shot,'' he said.

Scratch-ticket gambling, Deadwood gaming halls and tribal casinos were unaffected by the video lottery ruling.

Miller tried to cut funds from the state budget, but a circuit court said he lacked the authority to do that on his own. Some folks were unhappy about that. "A court got us into this mess,'' they said. "Now a court won't let the governor try to get us out of it? What's up with that?''

(They didn't really say that. I made up the quote. It expresses some public sentiment, however.

In the end, after those two special sessions and a lot of public uncertainty, citizens resolved the issue through the ballot. The new constitutional amendment, with language drafted for the sole purpose of saying video lottery was indeed legal, passed by a bit less than a 53-47 margin.)

The summer of '94 when the machines fell silent passed into the fall when the votes were counted. The machines cranked up again, and that crisis passed.

The thing about crises? There's always another one somewhere up ahead.