The Buck Should Stop at the Lottery

In Massachusetts, proposed expansion of legal gambling could hinder, rather than help, the state's economy

MASSACHUSETTS Gov. William Weld and others have proposed, and the Legislature is now considering, expanding legalized gambling in the state to include video poker, keno, blackjack, and possibly full-fledged casinos. Many of those advocating more state-sponsored gambling claim it is a painless way to generate state revenue. I disagree.

I have discussed this issue with attorneys general representing every state that has expanded gambling beyond a lottery, and there is one common warning: Stop and think! I believe that expanding gambling is short-sighted, fails to assess the full costs to the commonwealth, and is bad public policy. Expanded gambling is truly a "cure" worse than the disease, and it should not be implemented.

Increased gambling will mean increased crime, potential corruption, and increased problem gambling. There are also serious questions about whether the promised economic benefits will be realized. Apart from the philosophical and moral issues, the following are some of the realities that must be faced and addressed before we act.

1. Additional crime. The further legalization of gambling will have significant costs in terms of crime for state residents. Atlantic City, N.J., has experienced significant increases in violent crime and crimes against property. In the first year of legalized gambling alone, Atlantic City's crime rate increased by 25 percent.

2. Law enforcement needs. If we increase state-sponsored gambling, a substantial increase in law enforcement personnel will be needed to combat corruption and larceny. Oregon provided for 22 full-time state police officers to work in conjunction with the Oregon Lottery Commission when it instituted video poker.

Louisiana, which also has legalized video poker, has established a $1.9 million budget solely for state police enforcement of the laws regarding gambling.

3. Risks of addiction. The legalization of gambling will result in increased gambling addiction, which also results in further societal problems. A federally-funded study conducted by the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems indicated that as much as 40 percent of white collar crime committed in the country may be related to compulsive gambling.

The statistical correlation between incidents of wife and child abuse and compulsive gambling are estimated at 17 percent and 13 percent, respectively. If Massachusetts institutes video poker, we should follow Oregon's lead and earmark 3 percent of the gross receipts for combatting and treating the effects of addictive gambling.

4. Strong central regulation. Questions arise also as to what the appropriate regulatory authority should be. Whatever authority gets the responsibility, it will have to regulate thousands of machines in potentially hundreds of locations across the state. The Massachusetts Lottery Commission already has an established statewide regulatory system that manages a large, decentralized gaming operation, the lottery. The Lottery Commission would be the logical regulatory authority as opposed to a new commissio n unfamiliar with the important task it will face.

5. Budgetary fool's gold. Any view that the further legalization of gambling will cure Massachusetts' economic and budgetary woes is misguided. Many hard questions still must be asked and answered before we accept the proposition that expanded gambling means easy money for the state. With gambling in Rhode Island and Connecticut, and its present consideration in Maine and New Hampshire, will any out of state dollars be coming to Massachusetts? Or will video poker or keno simply transfer gambling dollars away from the Massachusetts Lottery, thereby decreasing the money currently going to cities and towns?

6. Bad public policy. Expanded gambling attempts to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and the working class. It is, in essence, a veiled regressive tax imposed on those who can least afford to pay. This measure will allow state government to avoid the hard choices of higher taxes or less spending. Expanded state-sponsored gambling is a budgetary bandage while what Massachusetts needs is a long-term health plan.

Given its high social, law enforcement, and economic costs, expanded gambling is the "fool's gold" of the 1990's. Legalization of gambling is not a venture to enter into lightly, if at all.

Governor Weld and the Legislature must seriously consider the odds before further legalizing gambling; its costs to the citizens of the commonwealth could far outweigh its benefits.

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