Legislators betting on gambling across America
For your state,
Take the bait.
The gambling industry's under-the-radar political heft got a shot of overdue publicity when Sheldon Adelson, its biggest mogul, tried to use casino profits to buy the U.S. presidency last year. Fortunately, the candidates the quirky conservative promoted were so flawed they lost.
But today's big gamblers aren't losing all their bets. Like the mob, the government authorities that run lotteries have learned to capitalize on human frailty - even if they use the profits to substitute for taxes. About a quarter of the $65 billion we spend each year on lottery tickets land in state coffers.
Unfortunately the frailty itself mostly goes untended. Funds to treat gambling addiction remain thin, whether their beneficiaries are taxpayers, gaming moguls, or tribes. No one wants to dilute profits by squandering cash on saving the poor souls who make the whole system work. After all, any successful treatment program would reduce the number of customers.
The states are the worst villains of all. Rather than treating the growing addiction to gambling, they prey on it. State lotteries proliferate like flora in the rainforest, guided by advertising to target lower-income citizens. Revenue departments act like the numbers runners of old, while shame in legislatures remains in very short supply.
At least the mob has been cut out of the deal. After all, profits from lottery addicts do go to the public treasury and the body count has been zeroed out. This is more than can be said for the Drug War, where addicts are still jailed, the mob rakes in the booty, and the death toll persists unabated.
Also, gambling is now debated openly. Pros and cons are argued freely and passionately in legislative assemblies, whereas drugs can only be discussed guardedly - well, except in the states of Colorado and Washington.
This openness about gambling is a big improvement and occasionally leads to moderately intelligent decisions about the nature of legal wagering. Still, despite best efforts and hopeful fantasies, it can never replace taxes. Even after a steady climb, the states get $16 billion a year from lottery tickets sales. That's only 2 or 3 percent of their total budgets.
And now a new threat has cropped up - Internet gambling. Computer poker is already popular, and many states are contemplating opening the barn door to all games, thereby making it easier to fleece the gambling public. Casinos at least require that you physically get there before you lose your shirt.
The Internet allows the poorest and least mobile the chance to do that right at home. Nevada and Delaware have already legalized it but the concept isn't spreading at full tilt yet. While New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie just vetoed an Internet gambling bill for the second time since 2011, he's expressed a willingness to reconsider if lawmakers come up with a plan that calls for a bigger revenue stream for the Garden State.
Gambling, like drugs and alcohol, is a worldwide addiction. Its sufferers abound everywhere. Thus, governments may be evaluated based on how intelligently they manage both the profits and the pain from these afflictions. Unfortunately, we're stumbling awfully close to that Internet precipice.
OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Conn.