To date, legal gambling and sports betting hasn’t had legs in South Carolina. But that could change as two former elected officials advance in the coming months a traveling forum with town-hall style meetings, to discuss gaming and sports betting as a way to help the state generate new revenue streams.
The Palmetto Forum for Gaming Studies, headed by former State Superintendent for Education (2007-11) Jim Rex and former State Treasurer (2007-11) and State Representative (1997-2007) Converse Chellis, will travel the state in an effort to hear from South Carolinians about casino gambling, horse racing, and sports betting.
“This is an attempt to have a non-partisan, non-political discussion on whether or not it is time for South Carolina to reconsider its position on gaming,” said Rex, a Democrat, of his partnership with Chellis, a Republican. “We have a lottery and two gambling boats, so we decided it was time to start … a broad discussion across the state with stakeholders about legalizing one or more forms of gaming, especially if the revenue could go to one or more places where the state has a need.”
Studies show support, $215 mm in taxable revenue
The idea is to take the show on the road, visiting towns and cities across South Carolina. Rex said the group plans to have up to a dozen forums over the next 18 months, and ultimately propose to the state legislature that it put a referendum on the ballot and let the public determine what kinds of gambling it wants and how the money should be spent.
In 2017, a Winthrop Poll found that 68 percent of South Carolina residents would support a “limited number” of casinos if revenue were earmarked for specific projects.
According to a 2017 Oxford Economics study, if South Carolina introduced in-person and state-wide mobile sports betting, it could expect about $3.2 billion in annual handle, and $215 mm in taxable gaming revenue.
Imagine what casino gaming, sports betting and 🐎 racing could do for the South Carolina economy. https://t.co/NQ98zaBq7l
— Boyd Brown (@hboydbrown) July 17, 2018
Like many other states, South Carolina has a pension-fund deficit, and as the former head of education for the state, Rex would like to see some money earmarked for schools and teachers, but also says roads, infrastructure and other areas could use more funding.
The Forum held its first meeting near Myrtle Beach and has plans to hold two more in Beaufort, in the southern part of the state, and in York County near the North Carolina border in the coming months. South Carolina has a thriving tourism industry, and Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head and Charleston are key destinations. But the state is also something of a pass through for snow birds driving from the Northeast to Florida.
“We have millions of visitors and millions of visitors passing through,” Rex said. “They don’t always set aside time for South Carolina, so we want to give them a reason to.”
A 2018 report showed the economic impact of tourism was $22.6 billion in South Carolina.
Much of South slow to embrace sports betting
South Carolina lawmakers haven’t had much appetite for sports betting since the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in May 2018. Bills were filed in both 2018 and 2019, but none even got hearings.
Though the state has a lottery and two casino boats, there is no mature gaming infrastructure, which means that similar to states like Tennessee or New Hampshire, both of which legalized sports betting this summer, it would essentially be building a new business sector from the ground up.
South Carolina getting left behind as usual. Tennessee Sports Betting Launch In January, State Official Says https://t.co/H3vBCJekJe
— Travis Newton (@TravisANewton) August 2, 2019
Among those at the Palmetto Forum’s first meeting was State Representative William Bailey, who represents Little River, home to the state’s two gambling boats.
“I’m open-minded but very skeptical,” Bailey told MyrtleBeachOnline. “I don’t think elected officials would support it without widespread public support.”
There has been some enthusiasm for gambling in South Carolina’s neighboring states. Earlier this year a group in Georgia began exploring putting a racino in suburban Atlanta, and North Carolina lawmakers recently made it legal for the Eastern Band of Cherokees to begin offering sports betting at two tribal casinos. The closest states with legal sports betting are West Virginia (currently in-person only is live) and Tennessee, which is expected to have legal sporsbooks launch in 2020.
An historically conservative state, Rex and lawmakers at least want to have an earnest conversation about legalized gambling and legal sports betting.
“It’s time to get serious about developing new revenue streams,” Rex said. “In a democracy, the way to do that is to talk to people and develop a strategy. We may find that it’s not the right fit. But given that recent polling data, it could be.”