Columns 2003

Is legalized gambling worth the cost?

Once again gambling has reared its head in Alaska as a painless way to start dealing with the fiscal crisis we face.  I remember when my hometown of Atlantic City went through this debate in the early 70’s.  Gambling won. Anyone who goes to Atlantic City now can attest to the fact that the operation was successful but the patient died.  Atlantic City is a ghost town where once vibrant, if somewhat seedy, neighborhoods thrived. But Atlantic City also has money now, lots of it.  So the ultimate goal for legitimizing gambling was definitely achieved.

Here in Alaska we aren’t talking about building casinos. Not yet at any rate.  We are talking about video poker and a lottery.  Comparatively speaking, a minor foray at best into the gaming industry.  Yet the lines have been drawn, the voices have been raised and the noise is so loud that it even threatens to overwhelm the raucous debate on the longevity bonus program.

All the usual suspects are lining up in all the usual places.  Church groups and health professionals talk about the dangers to families created by gambling addictions.  Legislators talk about how relatively painless this form of revenue raising is.  And those of us in the middle ponder what all the screaming is about since gambling is already alive and well in Alaska. Why is everyone acting like a surprised virgin on her wedding night?  The marriage between Alaska and gambling was consummated the day the first legal pull-tabs and bingo games began.  The fact that this gambling doesn’t take place in brightly lit casinos with scantily glad men and women offering free drinks does not make it any less gambling.

I doubt there are many people in Alaska who don’t know at least one person who spends too much money on pull tabs or too much time in the bingo halls. Bingo players can fool you because they look like such a sweet group of mostly older women.  At least, that’s the demographics in Barrow.  But be ten minutes late in opening the bingo hall for the night and you have a mob that will lynch you as soon as look at you.  You can’t imagine how hostile and surly committed bingo players get if you cut their bingo time by the slightest fraction.

I personally have a sneaking suspicion that if I were totally honest with myself, I would have to admit that I hope we get a state lottery.  I say this because I realize I have reached a point in my life where I have to accept that winning the lottery is probably the only way I will ever actually have enough money to buy a second car.  Video poker doesn’t quite sound as attractive to me.  Unless it’s on the Vegas strip, there’s something about it that just seems sleazy.

As for the worries about what this would do to people with gambling addictions, I have to say once again that that ship sailed when the state allowed pull-tabs and bingo games.  And now that casinos are operating on the Internet, it’s pretty much impossible to stop someone who really wants to gamble.

The desire to get something for nothing is as old as human nature.  It’s why we were so thrilled as kids when that dumb little plastic toy finally surfaced in the box of Cracker Jacks.  When you pay taxes, you get municipal services in return for your money.  That’s fairly boring – at least until they go away and we suddenly realize how much we miss them.

But when you support state government through a lottery, well then you are taking a chance that you will be reimbursed a million fold for your investment.  You have at least a hope, dim, distant and unimaginably slim as it is, that you will get rich in return for your dollar. 

So bring on the lottery. If I have to pay for state government, I can at least walk around every day for a few hours thinking “Maybe tomorrow this time I’ll be able to buy that PT Cruiser”.  Hope springs eternal in the human heart.