The Iowa House Tuesday night voted to ban the Iowa Lottery’s TouchPlay machines, but the date when that ban would take effect is murky. By an 80-to-18 vote, the House endorsed a Senate-passed bill that would ban the machines within 45 days. But the House passed another bill that wouldn’t pull the plug on the machines ’til September 1st.

Representative Jeff Elgin, a Republican from Cedar Rapids, acknowledged the muddled message. “We have not agreed as to how we got here and we have probably not agreed totally on where we’re going in the future,” Elgin said.

Representative Brian Quirk, a Democrat from New Hampton, led the argument for giving the TouchPlay owners and retailers a bit more time to try to recoup their investment. “We’re in the hot seat on this issue. There’s no doubt about it,” Quirk said. “I despise the fact that we are because we have much bigger things to contend with.”

Representative Danny Carroll, a Republican from Grinnell, asked his colleagues to vote to ban the machines and start to turn the tide against gambling. “Write me down as Old MacDonald on the Farm, that ‘That’s real nice, Representative Carroll. Go back home and raise your little pumpkins but let us worry about this (gambling) business.’ Horsefeathers,” Carroll said. “Why not have an ideal? Why not have a vision of what this state can be? This state was built on hard work. It was built on discipline and respect. What do those have in common with gambling, with slot machines?”

Representative Dwayne Alons, a Republican from Hull, called the TouchPlay machines “crack-cocaine-type” gambling. “Let’s maintain our dignity…by removing this ‘in your face’ gambling (from) Iowa,” Alons said.

Representative Ralph Watts, a Republican from Adel, said the TouchPlay machines had spread like a cancer throughout the state. “We’re just about to give ourselves a dose of radiation therapy,” Watts said.

But Representative Kurt Swaim, a Democrat from Bloomfield, said the legislature’s decision will force some small businesses into bankruptcy. “These are folks that we led, or misled, into making this investment and now we propose to leave ’em high and dry,” Swaim said.

Representative Deborah Berry, a Democrat from Waterloo, agreed. “But now, here we are in the TouchPlay tsunami and, I’ll tell you, we’re asking them now to just give it all up,” Berry said.

Representative Phil Wise, a Democrat from Keokuk, said the state needs a better exit strategy. “Whether we like what has developed with these TouchPlay machines, and many of us do not…that does not absolve us of the responsibility to take into account those people who have made substantial investments at the state’s urging and allow them a chance to recoup those investments before we close, lock and nail shut this door,” Wise said.

Those who are in the TouchPlay business warn there’ll be a lawsuit — and the state’s liability could be more than a half-billion-dollars to the businesses that invested in TouchPlay. Mike Triplett, a spokesman for the TouchPlay Coalition, says he hopes the “punitive tenor” of the legislative debate prompts the governor to think twice about. “Never thought I’d see the day where small Iowa businesses lose out to out-of-state casinos. That’s happened two days in a row now,” Triplett says. “So we’re hoping that some sense prevails in the governor’s office.”

Craig Cohoon of Moss Distributing, one of the companies involved in TouchPlay, told reporters last night that he’ll lose his job. “At 5:30 (Tuesday) morning, I’m standing in the doorway of my three-year-old daughter’s (bedroom), and I’m bawling,” Cohoon said. “The effect of this on my life is really, really ugly.”

Cohoon suggests legislators underestimated how ugly it may get for the state, too. “The number of bankruptcies, the liability to the state. I think that there’s far-reaching economic recourse to the state that has not been estimated at this time that is going to be hard to sell to the public that they’re going to pay for it with taxes,” Cohoon said. “If they would have known that, there may have been a different outcome here.”

Governor Vilsack issued a statement late Tuesday night, suggesting he might consider vetoing the TouchPlay ban if the state’s attorney general finds the state would be liable for millions.

In the middle of yesterday’s TouchPlay drama at the statehouse a fire alarm was tripped by a construction crew and everyone had to evacuate the capitol. The temporarily-disabled legislator who has focused the spotlight on state capitol evacuation deficiencies says he waited seven minutes before someone arrived to carry him down the statehouse steps.