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GAMBLING ON CASINOS - And Losing

By Ward Morehouse III, Staff correspondent of The Christian Science MonitorMonitor intern Deborah Peck contributed to the research for this article. / March 29, 1982



Atlantic City, N.J.

When New Jersey's Casino Control Act was passed in 1976, it was hailed as the ''toughest in the nation.''

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But a close look at the state's efforts to regulate its gambling industry forces a different conclusion. Important provisions of the law have been ignored and regulations stemming from it repealed in the face of intense political pressures to license casinos and keep them operating.

With many former state officeholders working for casinos in one capacity or another -- and often maintaining close ties to current government officials -- Atlantic City's casinos sometimes seem to be regulating themselves, according to Arnold Wexler, vice-president of the National Council on Compulsive Gambling and a nationally recognized expert on the links between casino gambling and political influence-peddling.

''The casinos have enough clout to make the legislature go their way,'' Mr. Wexler says.

''That certainly has been the case . . . . They have a great deal of clout,'' agrees New Jersey state Assemblyman Charles Hardwick, who has been in the forefront of a battle to tighten regulatory control over the casinos here.

Financially, New Jersey has a growing stake in casinos. This year's revenue from gambling taxes is expected to be as much as $120 million, up from about $90 million last year. Moreover, legislation has been introduced which would nearly double the state tax on casino revenue. (The industry, however, is fighting this and it's not expected to pass.) To Assemblyman Hardwick, then, the question is no longer whether the state should be involved in casino gambling, but how to regulate gambling in the most ''moral'' way possible.

But local industries exercise political power in most state legislatures. What's the difference between New Jersey's casinos and Texas's oil companies or California's agri-businesses?

Michael Hawkins, an assistant professor in the Department of Urban Planning at Rutgers University, New Jersey's state university, says that ''when you're talking about oil, you're talking about a natural resource that is the underpinning of the entire country's transportation and energy network.'' But gambling, he says, is, in effect, a highly ''negative force'' that was chosen to revive Atlantic City when all other possibilities for ''positive'' development had been exhausted.

Dudley Sarfaty, executive secretary of the New Jersey Council of Churches, points to the casino industry's ''special dangers.'' Among these, he says, are the possibility of an ''influx of organized crime, and the increase of routine crimes - street crime, prostitution, and drug abuse.''

In addition, he says, the introduction of casino gambling can generate a tremendous increase in compulsive gambling. Before the first casino opened in May 1978, New Jersey had 15 chapters of Gamblers Anonymous, a private organization designed to help compulsive gamblers. Today there are 32. ''No other state has had that kind of growth in Gamblers Anonymous,'' says Mr. Wexler.

Such social costs are the best argument for strict regulation of legalized gambling, say casino opponents. But more often, they lament, regulation here, as in Nevada -- the state with the longest history of legalized casinos - is soft and yielding.

When New Jersey's gambling industry was getting started, layers of tough regulations were added to the books. But in a political process that seems almost inexorable, many of these public-interest regulations, as well as local ordinances designed to protect the public, are being diluted, repealed, or thwarted by casino pressure and acquiescent officials.

Here are a few examples: