Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Fake gambling tears

Just listen to important Iowa legislators gnashing their teeth around a shiny table in Des Moines, fretting over the treatment of gambling addicts and whether their poor constituents are losing their proverbial shirts right this moment in unwise back-room games of Texas Hold'em.

Hear the governor from atop his soapbox call for the convening of an independent blue-ribbon taskforce to study gambling in Iowa. And listen to him suggest a moratorium on those Iowa Lottery TouchPlay machines that are all over creation these days. They are going to mess up Iowa kids, he fears.

See House Speaker Chris Rants rant that the machines are basically the same thing as casino slots, and watch him go on TV to blame the Iowa Lottery for "pulling a fast one on us" in bringing in those machines (now that people are complaining) though legislators in both houses voted them legal themselves.

The word is that the legislature is going to crusade with what the Associated Press calls "a full-blown gambling debate" in 2006. A couple of ultra-conservatives have even whispered for the repeal of legalized gambling.

Is the Iowa public buying any of these crocodile tears? C'mon. Pardon us while we choke on the exhaust cloud of hypocrisy billowing out of Des Moines.

Iowa lawmakers have passed and expanded gambling knowing exactly what they've been doing from the beginning.

That beginning was riverboats, on April Fools day 1991. Do they think we still being fooled...?

While they have prattled on about how they are funding gambler treatment programs, the money comes straight as a tiny slice of the grocery cash the same problem gamblers are losing. Hypocrisy - yeah, just a wee bit.

While they throw a "Responsible Gambling Week" celebration every year and slap their own backs for all the measures taken to keep gambling away from kids, take a look around the big Ameristar Casino in Council Bluffs sometime - hey, look, Mr. Governor, it's a daycare center inside a casino where the employees can raise your kids while you lose their college savings account.

What's that you say? You aren't addicted to gambling?

Ah, but you are.

So am I - though I have never placed a bet in a casino, and still stew over that $5 I lost on the office NCAA Tourney pool about 13 years ago. I hate you, Gonzaga.

All of Iowa is addicted to gambling, and if lawmakers were honest about it, they would tell you there's nothing to debate.

The state is so deep into gambling that it couldn't begin to back out if it wanted to - and let's face it, it doesn't want to.

The uncomfortable truth is that when gamblers lose, we all win. Sure, they may end up in bankruptcy, with lost jobs, divorces or rehab. But the more they lose, the better life is for the rest of us.

Some of us may not like the Little Las Vegas image Iowa has fostered as its one real form of modern economic development, and we might not care for thousands of state-sponsored betting machines in our grocery stores, cafes and convenience shops.

But we are sure addicted to what it can do for us - fund programs for our schools, assist charity, build quality-of-life developments for our communities, improve our environmental lot.

In Storm Lake, we have benefitted mightily from the take. We can't possibly look ourselves in the mirror and suggest that we are "against gambling." We'd be hypocrites, then, too.

We want it. We need it. We've gotta have it. Sad, but true.

And lawmakers, for all of their trumped up concern, are not about to kill the goose that laid the golden egg on which the state's budget is nervously balanced. You can, um, bet on it.

These are the same people who voted to lift those original wage and loss limits for riverboats just three years after they themselves had written them. The same ones who dropped the restrictions on slots and later table games at the pari-mutuel tracks. Added the machines. Lifted their own moratorium to add more casinos.

They were the ones who ignored an Iowa State University Conference that reported studies and surveys in which 63 to 75 percent of Iowans said that gambling has a negative impact on families. Gamblers negatively influenced by gambling reported: "It was to the point where I considered taking my life." ; "I isolated myself from everyone."; "My parents could no longer rely on me."; "I ended up in a divorce."; "I stole from my employer."; "Family relations were destroyed irreparably."

A Quad Cities scribe recently said it well:

"State government and the gambling industry are occupying the honeymoon suite, for better or for worse. There's a 'do not disturb' sign on the doorknob and lawmakers aren't about to knock."

And as for the worries about Iowans losing their money in poker games in the family rooms and hometown bars around the state, or the local sports betting pool, I wonder if they are as worried for those people as they are about the fact that the state hasn't found a way yet to get its cut of that action.

They wonder where Iowans got the idea that it was legally and morally okay to just gamble their money away. Oh year, from the legislators - who took $210 million out of it last fiscal year...

Now, granted, we don't need to stand her and preach the evils of gambling. That ship sailed long ago, anyhow.

For people who can control themselves, it's a night-out activity, and if they leave $50 behind, it's not so much different than leaving it at a nice restaurant or the movie theater.

And if they can't control it, people would probably find another way to part themselves from their life savings even if the state wasn't there to assist them in their fleecing.

I'm reminded of an old joke in which a casino rookie comes home to tell his buddies that after many losses, he finally hit it big. "I found a hot machine way in the back," he said. "Every time I put a dollar bill in the slot, I won four quarters!"

Just like the change machine our guy mistook for a slot machine, Iowa legalized gambling isn't a magic money machine. What we all take out of it is exactly what others lose to it.

We'll never have a real debate about how to practically control this ever-growing monster until our political leaders quit playacting moralism and concern for the poor slobs who now fund out way of life, and address it like the business it is.

Suddenly, in 2006, they are worried about addiction? It's a little late now - we are all addicted, if only by association.