Friday, April 29, 2011

Dr. John Hill: Legislature making progress now that gambling's a non-issue

  Few research reports more clearly illustrate the dangers of expanding gambling in a state-and the benefits of getting rid of it altogether-than two papers released last month.

  The first study, which was conducted by the University of Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions, flips the long-common wisdom that alcoholism is more prevalent than gambling problems. Rather, according to the Institute, the opposite is true.

  In the words of the study's chief investigator, John Welte, the rate of problems with alcohol tends to peak around the college years-when risky behaviors and feelings of invulnerability are at their highest-then sharply tapers off. By comparison, the number of those with gambling problems rises after age 21, peaks among most people while they are in their 30s, and drops off after age 40. The study included all forms of gambling, such as lotteries, office pools, charity bingo, Internet gambling and raffles.

  Welte and his colleagues also found that, for lower income people, gambling becomes more frequent and more of a problem. This may be because the motivations for lower income Americans are more about making money than having fun, which may in turn drive their desire to gamble more.

  Even critics of Welte's study agree that the availability of gambling is rapidly approaching that of alcohol. Robert Hunter, who operates a problem gambling treatment clinic in Las Vegas and is skeptical of the study, admits, "Conventional wisdom says you can get alcohol everywhere. Theoretically, you can get gambling everywhere, too."

  The second study, by University of Illinois professor John Kindt, proposes that the best way to boost sagging state economies is not by legalizing more gambling, but by banning all of it.

  "If you're dumping money into gambling or slot machines, you're not spending money on cars, refrigerators, computers, or education," says Kindt, a professor of public policy.  "The lost consumer spending is enormous. The lost sales tax revenue-enormous. And when you start losing the economy, you want to go back to basics; you don't want to keep going down the wrong path."

  Using Illinois as an example, Kindt notes that for every dollar gained by the state from gambling revenue, it loses three dollars as a result of increased crime, broken families and poverty. "In studies, it shows that around these slot machine areas, we have people spending up to 10 percent less on food." If gambling were banned outright, though, families would have more money to spend on consumer goods and services, which would lead to the creation of jobs to supply these products, which would lead to more spending in our state and local economy and the creation of more jobs.

  By themselves, either of these reports would be reason enough not to want to bring more gambling into Alabama. But then, there is the aspect of political corruption to consider.

  Last October, two of Alabama's largest casino owners, four state senators, and several top lobbyists were arrested on federal charges accusing them of vote buying on a bill to legalize electronic bingo in the state. Two of those arrested have already struck plea deals in exchange for a dismissal of some of the charges against them.

  Over the years, gambling-related corruption has plagued other states. In West Virginia, two former presidents of the Senate were sentenced to prison in 1989 for taking money from gambling interests. In Arizona, six legislators accepted plea bargains and another was convicted of conspiracy in 1991 after being caught on videotape taking $25,000 from an undercover agent for agreeing to vote for legalized gambling. And in 1995, 15 Kentucky state legislators were eventually convicted or pled guilty to charges from an FBI investigation surrounding bribery and influence-peddling involving the state's horse racing industry.

  Without powerful gambling interests dominating the current legislative session, the state legislature has made tremendous progress on key reforms and the state budgets. Even if the economic and social costs of gambling are not reason enough for Alabama leaders to reject any consideration of gambling, gambling-related corruption should be. Alabama can ill afford to reopen that door and have our the Alabama Legislature locked down year-after-year and our elections unduly influenced by money from powerful gambling interests.

  About the author: Dr. John Hill, Senior Fellow at the Alabama Policy Institute, has authored more than two dozen publications and regularly appears on radio and television programs across Alabama, and writes about gambling effects, environmentalism, and education outcomes.  He is also the founder of American Indicators, Inc., a statistical consulting service.

 This article was published by the Alabama Policy Institute.

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