Analysis: Are voters souring on gambling?

By AL SWANSON, UPI Urban Affairs Correspondent   |   May 29, 2004 at 9:36 AM
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CHICAGO, May 28 (UPI) -- As casinos proliferate nationwide, voters in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa are telling politicians they want more say over expansion of legal gambling, which critics call a sucker bet.

Lawmakers in Illinois, which has nine active riverboat-casino licenses and five horseracing tracks, are debating legislation that would permit four new casinos, including a Las Vegas-style gambling palace in Chicago, and add thousands of slot machines and video poker at each horse track creating so-called racinos.

The state's 10th riverboat license is dormant after the bankruptcy of Emerald Casino Inc.

Supporters of gambling expansion say it's a sure thing that can nearly close a $2 billion budget deficit. Gov. Rod Blagojevich is against a land-based casino in Chicago and has proposed a budget with business-tax and fee increases. He warned his plan might result in layoffs of up to 5,000 state employees.

Republicans also oppose a Chicago casino but say the governor should roll back business-tax and fee hikes if the state expands gaming. The Task Force to Oppose Casino Gambling in Chicago says poor minorities, the city's most vulnerable citizens, would be the biggest losers if Chicago opens a city-run casino.

"The National Academies of Science found that pathological gamblers engage in destructive behaviors, commit crimes and run up large debts," the Rev. Oscar Carrasco, director of Correctional Ministries for the United Methodist Church, told the Illinois Leader, a conservative news source.

Blagojevich, a first-term Democrat, has seen his popularity take a nosedive because of the budget impasse with the Legislature. Public bickering with Mayor Richard M. Daley and Democratic leaders over a Chicago casino may undermine his popularity further.

Blagojevich has vowed to veto any bill that gives Chicago a casino, and Senate President Emil Jones says he is not prepared to compromise. A state budget must be passed in four days or there may have to be a special legislative session.

The governor's job-performance approval rating fell from 55 percent in February to 40 percent in May, according to a Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV survey of 600 registered voters conducted May 21-24. The poll by Market Shares Corp. had a margin or error of 4 percentage points.

Fifty-six percent of those surveyed opposed a massive gambling expansion, 25 percent favored more gaming and 19 percent had no opinion. Two-thirds of white suburban women, a key demographic for both parties, were against increased gambling opportunities.

The poll showed more voters statewide agreed with the governor's opposition to a Chicago casino. Blagojevich does not oppose new casinos in economically distressed communities, but he's not wild about putting slot machines and video poker at racetracks.

Nearly half of respondents statewide said Daley should back off a near-downtown mega-casino with 3,000 gaming positions. Some 29 percent favored gaming in Chicago.

Among city residents, support for a local casino is split right down the middle.

Betting in the United States is more popular than ever, with gamblers averaging 5.8 trips to casinos in 2003, according to a survey by the American Gaming Association.

Some 53.4 million visitors made 310 million trips to casinos, providing jobs for 352,428 workers who earned nearly $12 billion in wages, benefits and tips.

The 443 non-tribal casinos in 11 states had combined gross revenues of more than $27 billion -- more than was spent on movies, theme parks and videos combined last year. Casinos paid more than $4.3 billion in direct gaming taxes to state and local governments.

Nearly half of people in the United States bought a lottery ticket, making lotteries the most popular form of gambling, followed by casinos and sports betting.

Why then does investor Warren Buffett, the world's second-richest man and an investment guru, consider casino gambling a poor bet?

Buffett is advising Nebraska voters to reject a proposal on the November ballot that would allow casinos in his home state. Neighboring Iowa has riverboat and racetrack casinos, and the Des Moines City Council is preparing to push for a casino.

Gov. Tom Vilsack recently signed a bill permitting the Iowa Racing and Gaming to authorize new casinos as early as June.

"It's a terrible way to raise money," Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway, told 19,500 shareholders in Omaha this month. "It's a tax on ignorance. ... I don't like the idea of government depending, for certain portions of its revenue, on hoodwinking citizens."

Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger called the modern slot machine "one of the best ways to remove money from suckers known to man."

Buffett says investing in businesses listed on major stock markets is different, because businesses can generate income while gambling does not.

Indiana residents are rethinking gambling expansion in their state. A Hoosier Poll conducted by the Indianapolis Star and WTHR-TV found 55 percent of respondents were against more casinos.

"It's a good sign that many Hoosiers see through the short-term promises of jobs and growth that lead communities to embrace casinos. However, it's terribly difficult for state and local elected officials to resist the allure of taxes on gambling revenues as an easy way out of budget trouble," the Fort Wayne News Sentinel wrote in an editorial.

"It's too easy to lay the blame on elected officials. Time after time, the appeal of quick money demolishes every moral, ethical and pragmatic argument against the spread of gambling."

A telephone poll of more than 500 Wisconsin voters found 70 percent of respondents felt Gov. Jim Doyle should not have sole authority to approve gaming compacts with the state's 11 Indian tribes, which have a monopoly on casino gambling in the state.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court this month threw out a gaming compact Doyle signed with the Forest County Potawatomi tribe, which runs the state's most profitable casino in Milwaukee, because it had no expiration date. The court's decision led the Legislature to demand oversight of tribal gambling compacts and to call for a bigger share of casino proceeds for the state.

Doyle vetoed a bill giving lawmakers a say in renegotiating gaming compacts. Wisconsin is dependent on about $100 million a year from the tribes to balance its budget.

The survey was conducted May 18-20 by the Wisconsin Tavern League, which wants legal video gambling in taverns, gas stations and restaurants. The poll had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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