Thursday, March 31, 2005

Gambling dependency

I’m glad to see that some prominent Democrats are speaking out against the influx of legislation to expand legalized gambling in Texas. Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco, chairman of the House Democrats, Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston, chairman of the House Black caucus and Rep. Pete Gallego of Alpine, chairman of the Hispanic caucus, have denounced bills being pushed by fellow Democrats Sylvester Turner and Kino Flores as “the wrong solution at the wrong time”.
Dunnam goes on to accuse the House Republican leadership of being behind the push for gambling expansion to cover up a $600 million hole in their school financing proposal but are using Turner and Flores to carry the measures so that their fingerprints won’t be on it.

It’s not hard to see why the Republican leadership would be looking at gambling expansion to shore up shortfalls in state revenues. As this story in the NYTimes today shows, states are becoming increasingly dependent upon gambling revenues to make their budgets work:

Gambling revenues, once a mere trickle, have become a critical stream of income in a number of states, in some cases surpassing traditional sources like the corporate income tax and helping states lower personal income or property taxes.
The sums are so alluring that some officials are concerned that their states are becoming as addicted as problem gamblers. "We're drunk on gambling revenue," said Representative Wayne A. Smith, the Republican who is House majority leader in the Delaware Legislature. "Gambling revenues are like free money."

It may seem like “free money,” but that is just an illusion. Gambling does not produce revenue, it simply soaks up existing revenue from other sources. Every dollar spent on gambling is a dollar that is not being spent in some other entertainment or consumer venue. And in some cases, people are literally taking food off of their tables to pay for their gambling habits. I saw an example of this first hand when I was living in Connecticut. I was standing in line to check out at a small neighborhood grocery store behind an elderly woman with a basket of basic food items - bread, meat, some canned goods, and so forth. When it was her turn to checkout, she noticed that she did not have enough money to pay for the groceries and get her daily allotment of lottery tickets. So she took the meat out of her basket and put it back! Needless to say, I was appalled. I’ve been absolutely opposed to state-sponsored gambling ever since.

The role of the government should be to protect its citizens from these kinds of con games, not to promote and advertize them as a means to raise funds for basic services. The government should raise the revenue that it needs in a straightforward manner using a taxing system that is both fair and progressive. Instead, what we have are lawmakers looking for an easy out by sneaking revenues that at first don’t seem like a tax. But gambling is a tax even for those who don’t gamble. It taxes our communities by funneling away revenues that might otherwise have been spent at local restaurants or stores. It taxes families by adding financial strains that frequently result in broken homes and relationships. It puts a greater share of the tax burden onto the poor and ignorant who are then more likely to require government aid and assistance.

This is one area where I find myself fully in agreement with the religious conservatives.

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