Caught like many other cities in a severe financial squeeze, the District of Columbia is considering legalized gambling as a new source of revenue. On May 6, residents will vote on whether to set up city-run lottery and numbers games and legalize betting on jaialai and dog raising. Political analysts say voters are likely to approve the proposal.
The moral debate that inevitably accompanies such a proposition is particularly sharp in the nation's capital, where dog racing and horse racing were outlawed by the US Congress in the late 19th century.
"What a shame for the nation's capitaland in may ways, the world's capital -- to have to stoop to gambling," says the Rev. Raymond Robinson of Israel Baptist Church, one of a group of ministers opposed to gambling in Washington. "It is a bad practice and so far from the philisophy of our Founding Fathers."
If approved by District of Columbia voters, gambling will face a mandatory review by Congress, which has final say over district affairs. Aware of the unique and prominent nature of the capital city, Congress may exercise its veto. The ministers are urging such action in the event it is needed.
Meanwhile, an aggressive pro-gambling advertising campaign has begun, supported by liquor dealers, gambling paraphernalia manufacturers, and private citizens and politicians who believe new revenue is the most important consideration.
Mayor Marion Barry, who supported an earlier study of gambling, so far has not publicly taken a position on the May 6 referendum.
Gambling advocates contend the city stands to gain $35 million a year -- an estimate that is hard to corroborate. Neighboring Maryland has a large budget surplus. The Maryland Board of Revenue Estimates says its state lottery, which has been in effect since 1973, is a major contributing factor.
A D.C. lottery, says a board spokesman, could divert $300 million from Maryland's annual revenue receipts. He adds that a D.C. lottery also could touch off a war of sorts over payoff odds in an attempt to lure players. This would decrease the takes of both jurisdictions.
Money brought in by D.C. gambling would be channeled through a gaming control board to government programs currently without funds, public and private special education, and selected nonprofit organizations.
Many tax experts say a lottery would not earn more than $8 million a year and yet would represent one of the most regressive forms of taxation -- three times worse than a sales tax, according to one estimate. A 1978 report by the D.C. Tax Revision Commission warns that the poorest members of society soon would be carrying a disproportionate share of city government expenses through their betting.
The report also questions whether a legal game, on which taxes must be paid, would be more attractive than an illegal one, and whether criminal elements might flourish on the fringes of controlled gambling.
During the 1970s, gambling has been looked upon by more and more financially strapped jurisdictions as the solution to their money problems. All but five states (Hawaii, Missouri, Mississippi, Texas, and Utah) now have some form of legalized gambling. Lotteries increased from two states to 14 in the last decade.
"There may be a tendency to see it as a 'quick fix' to fiscal problems," says a municipal finance expert, "but it hasn't solved the problem in any other state , and soon the money is absorbed."
New York and a number of other locations have been considering following Atlantic City's lead and bringing in casinos. But the "Abscam" probe may have tarnished the image of this form of gambling, at least temporarily. Casino gambling is not part of the D.C. proposal.
Given the questionable social and financial factors associated with gambling, should government be put in the business of promoting it?
A spokesman for the D.C. Committee on Legalized Gambling argues that a lottery is no more wrong than speculation in silver and "at least the poor have a chance to participate. Besides, it's a kind of recreation."
As for its impact on the unique image of the nation's capital, this spokesman asks, "Are we purer than Paris or Rome?They have lotteries. Certainly it's a moral dilemma, but your morality depends on who you are."
But the Rev. John Bussey, chairman of the Council of 100 Ministers, calls gambling unbecoming and "dishonest in every respect. It is robbery.
"Young people growing up in a socieyt with legalized, advertised gambling are given a sense of dependence on chance instead of the work ethic."
Gambling researcher Daniel Suits of Michigan State University describes the strange role government plays in promoting gambling as "pushing -- and it's not pushing police or fire protection, but dreams."