Rod Driver

From the Providence Journal, April 30, 1999:

To expand gambling, just ignore the voters


ONCE AGAIN, gambling promoters have overruled the voters and acted to increase addictive gambling. On Monday the Rhode Island Lottery Commission approved a 52 percent increase in the number of video lottery terminals or "video slots" at the Lincoln dog track and Newport jai alai.

This is emphatically not what Rhode Islanders want. The last time Rhode Island voters approved an expansion of gambling was November 6, 1973, when the majority amended the state constitution to permit creation of a seemingly innocuous state lottery. (The first week's drawing was a festive occasion at the State House on May 31, 1974 with a crowd of 1,000 on hand to see someone win the $50,000 grand prize.)

Who could have guessed what would happen over the next 20 years? The voters who approved the lottery could not have imagined daily numbers, instant scratch tickets, Powerball, jai-alai, dog racing, off-track betting, and video lottery terminals. They could never have guessed that, on the basis of their 1973 vote, Rhode Island would eventually have Keno and self-service lottery vending machines in grocery stores, department stores and the airport.

Since 1973, the voters have repeatedly said "no" to any expansion of gambling -- only to be rebuffed by their government. After the voters overwhelmingly rejected off-track betting in Pawtucket and harness racing in Burrillville, the 1991 General Assembly promptly introduced off-track betting anyway -- in Lincoln and Newport. Among supporters were then-Representatives Bob Weygand and Jim Langevin. The House specifically voted down Rep. Bruce Long's appeal that it comply with the law by letting the people vote on the expansions.

In 1992, the General Assembly again thumbed its nose at the people and the law. It introduced video lottery terminals -- explicitly rejecting Rep. Christine Callahan's call for compliance with the requirement for voter approval. And that same year the Lottery Commission put Keno machines in stores, without getting even legislative approval.

Given another chance to express our wishes in November 1994, we the voters, by more than two to one, amended the state constitution to ban the introduction of any new forms of gambling without voter approval. At that same election we rejected proposals for gambling casinos in Coventry, Lincoln, Pawtucket, Providence and West Greenwich.

In September 1996, in the spirit of that constitutional amendment, the Lottery Commission held a public hearing on a proposal for more video slots in Newport. The public opposition was loud and clear. In fact the only advocates for expansion at that hearing were management and employees of the gambling facility. So the Lottery Commission dropped the idea.

But in April 1999 the commission decided not to repeat the "mistake" of inviting public comment. It met at a little-publicized meeting in its crowded conference room. And then voted 5 to 4 to increase the number of video lottery terminals.

Just as tobacco companies sought to get young people hooked on smoking, the Lottery Commission and its affiliates seem determined to get the people who can least afford it hooked on gambling.

Video lottery terminals are advertised aggressively. Despite Rhode Island laws against deceptive advertising, a TV commercial for the video slot machines proclaims that "Lincoln Park patrons win over $5 million every week." An honest ad would mention that patrons lose over $10 million every week! The "over $5 million" figure, incidentally, is based on the theory that any money paid out to gamblers is money they have "won." So if you put $100 into a machine and play until you have lost all but $5, then when you collect your remaining $5 you are counted as a "winner." Your own $5 becomes part of the grand total which patrons "win" that week.

Compulsive gamblers end up unable to make their car payments or mortgage payments or even to pay for heat and groceries for their families. In severe cases in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut, gambling addiction has led to domestic assault, family breakup, embezzlement, business failure, bankruptcy, robbery, imprisonment, murder and suicide.

The people most vulnerable to addiction are the young, the elderly and the poor - people targeted by the pitch "you can't win if you don't play." And the most addictive forms of gambling are the "fast games" such as the video lottery terminals -- the very machines which the Lottery Commission has voted to increase.

Rod Driver, of Richmond. is a mathematics professor at the University of Rhode island and a former state representative.