Ballot-box gamble

Since 2004, voters have said 'no' to casino expansion. Now it's time to roll back legalized gambling.

Again this election cycle, citizens will decide whether to introduce or expand casino-style gambling in their states. Casino resorts in Maine and Ohio? Slot machines – 15,000 of them – in Maryland? Round-the-clock gambling in Colorado? Backers promise a painless revenue stream for states. It's anything but.

A group of citizens in Lakewood, Wash., knows this only too well. They've collected enough signatures for a local ballot measure to ban "minicasinos" in their community, just south of Tacoma. A successful voter backlash would not just stop the expansion of legalized gambling there, but actually close four card rooms – a first in the state, and perhaps the nation.

The city warns that closing the establishments will cost $2.8 million in lost revenue, hurt social services for the poor, and essentially end neighborhood policing. But the ban's backers have come to the conclusion that the costs of legalized gambling – including gambling addiction, broken families, lost jobs, and drug abuse – aren't worth the revenues.

That realization has been steadily growing among voters. Starting with the last presidential election, voters in 10 states have said "no" to the introduction or expansion of casinos. Three governors have failed at efforts to push casinos or "ra-cinos" (a race track/casino combination) through their legislatures.

Americans appear to be nearing a saturation point with legalized gambling (48 states allow it; Americans wager about $1 trillion a year on it). But are they, like those citizens in Lakewood, ready to roll back a practice that trusts success in life to chance and that bases state revenues on victimization?

A 2007 report by the Pew Research Center hints they may be. Fewer people now than in 1989 say they enjoy betting (23 percent versus 34 percent). More people believe gambling has a "negative impact" on their communities than those who think it's positive (42 percent versus 34 percent). And 70 percent believe legalized gambling pushes people beyond what they can afford.

They're right. The lion's share of gambling revenue – from lotteries to casinos – comes from households earning less than $50,000. Bettors with incomes of less than $10,000 spend almost three times as much on gambling as those with incomes greater than $50,000. A bipartisan study that looked at the gambling explosion in the 1990s found about 3 million problem and pathological gamblers, with 15 million more at risk.

When the total cost of legalized gambling is considered – crime, bankruptcy, suicide, regulation of the industry, etc. – it outweighs the benefit by a ratio of 3 to 1, according to research by Earl Grinols, an expert in gambling economics.

The US has been through two gambling waves before this tsunami – one after the Revolutionary War, the other after the Civil War. By the turn of the 20th century, states criminalized the practice for its inherent corruption and greed.

Perhaps as Americans watch the results of the subprime mortgage crisis unfold, they will more clearly realize gambling's folly of trying to get something for nothing. On Nov. 4, voters should again reject casino expansion, and next election, may more communities put up ballot measures like Lakewood's.

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