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One Token Over the Line

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The first step, Gamblers Anonymous says, is admitting you have a problem.

 

Clearly Pennsylvania's legislature does. State legislators aren't frittering away their own money at the casinos, of course. They're just betting that you will, if given a chance.

 

As this issue goes to press, Harrisburg is expected to consider a bill legalizing slot machines at more than a dozen locations statewide. A similar effort failed, last year, but the legislature seems practically addicted to gambling, having taken it up repeatedly in the past decade. Just consider some of the following questions, taken from a list of 20 that Gamblers Anonymous provides "to help the individual decide if he or she is a compulsive gambler."

 

Did you ever gamble to get money with which to...solve financial difficulties?

Even supporters joke about how many financial difficulties gambling is supposed to solve. Slots revenue is supposed to lower property taxes, while funding numerous development schemes. In Pittsburgh alone, it's touted as a source of funding for a new hockey arena, a deficit-ridden convention center and hotel, and the Pittsburgh International Airport, where officials need to cover their bets on the darkest horse of all: US Airways.

 

Politicians find these visions as hypnotizing as the lights on a slot machine. As reported June 16 by the Post-Gazette's Jeff Cohan, for example, Pittsburgh's development agency has predicted that a proposed racetrack and slot parlor in Hays would generate $19 million in city taxes. But the scenario, notes Cohan, relies heavily on optimistic assumptions and figures provided from gambling lobbyists -- straight from the horse's mouth, or perhaps another part of its anatomy. Pittsburgh is on the verge of bankruptcy, thanks partly to Mayor Tom Murphy's gamble that other development projects would bail us out. But city leaders can't resist one more roll of the dice.

 

After losing did you feel you must return as soon as possible and win back your losses? After a win did you have a strong urge to return and win more?

Whether the problem gambler wins or loses, the response is always the same: more gambling. The same is true of Harrisburg. Last year, when Rendell first began pushing for slots, the state faced an economic downturn and massive deficits. In March 2003, Rendell argued that slots were necessary for "navigating [the] budget deficit" and pursuing his plans.

 

But thanks to tax hikes and an uptick in the economy, tax revenues through May were nearly a half-billion dollars ahead of yearly expectations; a year ago, they were a half-billion below. Yet the state's gambling fever has worsened. A year ago, Rendell was only seeking to install slots at eight sites; legislation this time around is seeking as many as 14.

 

Did gambling make you careless of the welfare of yourself or your family?

Supporters argue gambling is good for families. As Robert Goodman puts it in his 1995 book The Luck Business, "To gain public support, gambling revenues are often used for...popular social programs -- what one gambling executive called 'the three big E's -- education, environment, and economic development.'" But Goodman notes, "Most often, revenues from gambling simply replace, rather than supplement, the funds for programs whose budgets get tied to gambling revenues."

 

Rendell's pledge to use gambling revenue to lower property taxes, a primary source of school funding, means the process has already begun. Don't be surprised if it continues. Since seniors are always touted as the beneficiary of property-tax cuts, the cuts might please your grandmother. But if too many gamblers play slots instead of the state lottery -- which benefits seniors -- Nana may soon be as crotchety as ever.

 

Do arguments, disappointments or frustrations create an urge to gamble?

Ask Mario Lemieux, who expressed "disappointment" that local officials won't give him tax dollars for a new arena. He's now pinned his hopes on gambling revenue, like everyone else with a local development proposal.

 

Just as gambling feeds on desperation, so do the efforts to legalize it: Each of these groups stands to become a powerful lobbying interest on its behalf. Can all these groups -- and Nana -- really all be winners? As the old gambling adage has it, "If you can't see who the sucker is by looking around the table, it's you."

 

Have you ever considered self-destruction or suicide as a result of gambling?

We may know Harrisburg's answer to this one in a few days.

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