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Budget Gaps Lead States to Gambling

BY ERIN ROACH                                                                                                                        ©2010 Baptist Press    

everal states are turning to gambling for potential income amid budget shortfalls, even as the American Gaming Association reported that revenue from casino gambling fell 5.5 percent overall last year.

"It is deeply disappointing that some of our states are turning to gambling to help them close their budget gaps," said Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research at the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

"If gambling was unacceptable when the state economies were doing well, it should be even less acceptable when their economies slow down. Government programs aren't the only thing hurting in these difficult times," Duke told Baptist Press. "Families are hurting as well. These state governments should be cutting their own expenses rather than looking for easy fixes that prey on people, especially gambling addicts, to close their budget shortfalls."

The Wall Street Journal, in a May 11 article with the headline "Strapped States Find New Virtues in 'Vice,'" said nationwide the public-funding crisis has led state and local leaders to condone businesses they'd be apt to restrict in better economic times.

California, for instance, is debating whether to allow and tax Internet poker, which is prohibited by federal law. A measure will be on the ballot in that state in November to decide whether to expand and tax marijuana sales, and at least half a dozen other states are considering the revenue potential marijuana might provide.

Some states have loosened decades-old restrictions on Sunday alcohol sales, the newspaper said. One commentator said "blue laws" are a common casualty of recessions. "Every time there's an economic contraction, sure enough, you start seeing local repeal efforts," the economics professor said.

A key focus of the Journal article was the state of Ohio, where Gov. Ted Strickland, a non-practicing Methodist minister, once described gambling as a "regressive tax" that harms the poor. But after Strickland reduced state spending by $2 billion, cut more than 2,500 government jobs and slashed state agencies by 10 to 20 percent and the budget still wasn't balanced, his opinion of gambling changed.

When presented with an option to cut back a Medicaid program that provides oxygen tanks for critically ill patients, Strickland said that was the last straw and submitted a budget plan that included installing video lottery machines in the state's seven horse-racing tracks, The Journal said.

The lottery machines, the governor projects, should raise $851 million over two years. Once Strickland gave in to the lottery machines, Ohio voters last November approved a measure to build casinos in the state's four largest cities. Voters in the state had rejected gambling repeatedly in the past, the newspaper said.

"Prior to the Great Depression, the U.S. had a near-total ban on gambling, and since 1920 barred alcohol sales," The Journal said. "But the government legalized horse-race betting during the depression and in 1933 repealed Prohibition, partially due to the high cost of law enforcement and need for tax revenue.”   

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