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Washington state must address its own gambling addiction
Tacoma News Tribune


May 30, 2006

In what may be just the latest example of state lawmakers closing the barn door after the horses have fled, a joint committee is studying the explosion of gambling in Washington state.

It's at least the third time lawmakers have pledged to slow down and take a comprehensive look at the issue. Each time the hand-wringing has been followed by more expansions.

In 1996, the net receipts from gambling - that's the amount wagered minus prizes paid out - was $476 million. In 2005, it was $1.7 billion.

In that time, nontribal minicasinos have jumped from $15 million to $302 million. Tribal gambling has increased from $50 million to $1.02 billion.

While legislators don't have much say over tribal gambling, their decisions about nontribal gambling and the lottery fuel the expansion of tribal casinos because the tribes use it as an excuse to get more and more.

So the first place that members of the joint committee should look is in the mirror. The expansion has been caused by legislators listening to lobbying from gambling interests as well as to their own desire to raise money without taking tax votes.

It's certainly not the voters. King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng reminded the joint committee last week that voters have overwhelmingly rejected measures to increase both tribal and nontribal gambling.

A recent national poll shows that attitudes toward gambling are changing. According to the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of Americans say legalized gambling encourages people to gamble more than they can afford. That is up from 62 percent in 1989.

While a majority support using casino gambling to raise money for states, that support has softened - from 54 percent to 51 percent. And a plurality - 42 percent - say casinos have a negative impact on their communities.

Opponents of expansion have been pigeonholed as religious prohibitionists. But Pew concluded that while fewer Americans feel gambling is immoral, more oppose expansion.

"The negative turn in attitudes toward gambling appears to be driven by concerns that people are gambling too much rather than by any revival of the once common view that gambling is immoral," the report states.

As gambling becomes more prevalent, arguments by professional gamblers that it is benign are more easily countered.

Gambling disproportionately impacts poor families, Maleng said. It has a relationship to crime, including domestic violence, theft and substance abuse. It increases problem gambling.

"It is not an industry that grows our economy," he said. "It is an industry that diverts disposable income from other retail and entertainment businesses."

Yet government is becoming more dependent on gambling to fund services. Only Utah and Hawaii do not get some revenue from gambling. The rest collect about $20 billion a year.

This growing addiction to revenue puts legislators - and local governments - in a conflict of interest.

Maleng thinks the only way the Legislature can avoid making the situation even worse is to resist the temptation to expand nontribal gambling, oppose off-reservation tribal casinos and refuse to enter into revenue-sharing agreements with state Indian tribes.

Last year, only opposition from both tribal and nontribal gambling interests blocked a compact with the Spokane tribe that would have traded revenue sharing for off-reservation casinos and a huge increase in the number of slot machines allowed.

The concept will return.

"The government cannot effectively regulate gambling and manage gambling policy when it has a vested interest in gambling expansion," Maleng said.

The task force will meet over the summer and fall and make a report by year's end. We'll know then whether the members are more inclined to listen to Maleng - and the voters - or to the industry lobbyists who filled the committee room last week.

Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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