State lotteries -- lure of the `painless tax'. ``Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.'' Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
Washington — Today's subject: ``The Painless Tax.'' When Justice Holmes spoke of Americans' duty to pay their taxes, he implied that it was an unpopular but essential obligation of citizenship.
But could paying taxes actually be fun?
Absolutely, say a growing number of politicians. They claim to have discovered something that is every lawmaker's dream. It is a tax that people are happy to pay, a tax that brings joy to the payer and bountiful good to society.
There's just one catch. Americans will have to legalize gambling.
Across the country, this pro-gambling argument is being made in state legislatures, governors' offices, and town meetings. And it is winning the day. Legalized gambling is spreading faster than hamburger outlets.
Even in a state like Florida, with its Deep South, Protestant roots, arguments of the gambling lobby are proving effective.
A study by the Policy Sciences Program of Florida State University shows that support for a legalized, state-run lottery in Florida has gone from 56 percent of the voters in 1983, to 58 percent in 1984, to 64 percent this year.
Florida Gov. Bob Graham, a Democrat, has worked against a lottery. So has Florida House Speaker James Harold Thompson. But the speaker says he thinks the lottery will eventually be approved in Florida. Proponents say a lottery could raise $300 million a year for the state.
What are the arguments that gambling advocates have found to be so successful?
George Sternlieb, co-author of ``The Atlantic City Gamble,'' says the arguments by the gambling forces are similar, whether the issue is lotteries, casinos, or other forms of wagering.
The most attractive, especially when a state is hard pressed for funds, is the argument for a ``painless tax.'' Dr. Sternlieb, director of the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University, says the advocates put it this way:
``If we don't have the casinos, or the lottery, or what have you, you are going to have to raise taxes. We need money. The state is in bad shape. . . . Let's turn to a painless tax, which people will pay without even thinking of it as a tax. It's fun and games.''
If that doesn't convince doubters, then there's the ``Mafia'' argument. Criminals now control much of the nation's gambling, it is pointed out. Why shouldn't government get its share? Sternlieb explains it this way:
``All those forces of darkness, and organized crime, and the like, are supported by illegal gaming. The right way to fight fire is with fire. Let's get out there and compete with those guys. Anybody who is against [government] gaming is supporting the underworld.''
When those two points don't sway lawmakers, the gambling lobby has another: ``the good cause.''
Gambling forces promise that any money the government makes from a lottery or casinos will go to some worthwhile project. It will support: (pick one) schools, hospitals, the elderly, roads. Says Sternlieb:
``The New Jersey lottery was earmarked for the elderly. Who can vote against the elderly? You love your parents. You love your grandparents. What kind of a son are you? That sells very, very well.''
Another appeal: jobs. This has become increasingly important since the 1981-82 recession. The Atlantic City casinos have created 30,000 jobs. Says Sternlieb: ``Are you going to stand in the way of people who desperately need jobs? And if you do, . . . what are you going to do to provide long-term unemployment benefits for these people?''
Yet another appeal: the ``spillover effect.'' Gambling, the argument goes, will be a ``spark plug,'' a ``generator'' for the economy. It will get the state moving again. Will it help the poor? Yes, the advocates argue. Will t restore the middle class? Yes. Will it rebuild our city? Yes. So the argument goes.
Finally, there's the ``greed'' factor. ``All our money is leaving our state for the Maryland lottery,'' the case goes. ``We've got to keep that money here. Why export capital?''
All these factors have combined with tremendous force in America today. They have powered the lottery through legislature after legislature. Now a national lottery is being proposed.
There's another side to all of this, of course. That will be the subject of the next story in this series. Meanwhile, however, some important people have found gambling to be an attractive money-raiser.
Florida's commissioner of education, Ralph Turlington, is one of those who think a lottery could do great things for his state.
In an interview at his Tallahassee office, he concedes that he once had doubts about lotteries.
``I can remember reading about this preposterous proposal of New Hampshire [in 1964] to have a lottery. And I must say that I individually was distressed by it. I foretold, as my upbringing had directed me to do, that there would be sinister and malevolent developments as a consequence,'' he recalls.
``That did not happen in New Hampshire. My impression is that the work ethic and the values of the people of New Hampshire are as puritanistic as they were in 1964. . . .
``We now have lotteries in a relatively large number of states, and to the best of our knowledge, they appear to be fully free of organized crime. They are popularly supported by the people of these states, and they have raised significant numbers of revenue dollars in a voluntary manner,'' Mr. Turlington says.
On balance, he says, low-income people in Florida would benefit from a lottery, since they would reap the benefit of better schools.
Looking at one of the most prosperous lotteries, in Maryland, Turlington asks: ``Have the people there quit work? Are they less moral today? Are they less American?''
The answer, he argues, is that the people are better off.
Second of eight articles. Next: Gambling, morality, and society. CHART: State lottery sales and revenue -- 1984 (Millions of dollars)
Sales Net revenue Arizona $59.3 $21.3 Colorado $118.3 $40.7 Connecticut $254.0 $105.0 Delaware $33.1 $14.0 Illinois $911.9 $377.1 Maine $15.9 $4.5 Maryland $536.8 $261.9 Massachusetts $412.6 $127.4 Michigan $594.1 $236.4 New Hampshire $18.6 $5.7 New Jersey $848.0 $358.3 New York $890.3 $390.5 Ohio $604.3 $250.0 Pennsylvania $1,236.0 $515.9 Rhode Island $53.9 $18.4 Vermont $5.1 $1.3 Washington $164.7 $77.0 Washington, D.C. $85.5 $28.0 Source: Gaming & Wagering Business magazine