August 20, 1997 in Nation/World

Gambling Explosion Confronts New Panel Unbiased Report Promised That Weighs Social Costs, Benefits

Derrick Depledge Knight-Ridder
 

After three years of investigation, 43 days of public hearings and testimony from more than 275 experts, a national gambling commission made its recommendations to Congress.

Casinos don’t belong in urban areas, the commission said. States should not encourage people to play the lottery. Indian gambling should be regulated and taxed by the states.

The year was 1976. The report was soon forgotten. Today, as a new federal panel starts examining some of the same issues, gambling has become one of America’s favorite pastimes, rivaling professional sports and concerts for entertainment dollars.

States such as Mississippi, Indiana and Illinois actively sought casinos to provide quick cash for troubled urban communities. Thirty-seven states have lotteries, using the proceeds to finance public functions like education and transportation. Indian gaming has exploded, with little state oversight.

“I don’t think anyone contemplated what was going to happen with gambling, absolutely not,” said Charles H. Morin, a Washington, D.C., attorney who headed the earlier commission.

The new members of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission have $5 million and two years to investigate the relationship between gambling and economic development, addiction, government finance and political corruption. Like their predecessors, they are particularly concerned about whether gambling brings more resources into a community than it takes away in social costs.

Kay James, commission chairman and an educator at Pat Robertson’s Regent University in Virginia, said the commission intends to produce an unbiased report that provides information so states and local governments can draw their own conclusions about gambling.

“(Our work) is not to draft legislation to prohibit gambling,” James said Tuesday as the commission met to set its agenda. “Nor is it to tell the states how they should regulate gambling. Nor is it to impose a moral judgment on either the merits or negatives of gambling.”

Congress created the commission to respond to gambling’s rapid growth over the past two decades. Although some of the early supporters were social conservatives who opposed gambling on moral grounds, the nine members of the commission reflect all sides of the issue.

At the time of the earlier commission, the only legal casinos were in Nevada, although people could also bet on horse and dog racing and state lotteries. Now there are casinos in 26 states, with every state except for Hawaii and Utah allowing some type of legal gambling. By the end of 1996, casinos reported 176 million visitors.

The powerful gaming industry embraces the old commission’s conclusion - that states should have primary responsibility over gambling activities. But it may not welcome a look into whether gambling is appropriate in urban areas.

Dean Hestermann, manager of policy analysis and research for Harrah’s Entertainment, said the experiences of the past two decades prove the old commission wrong. He said that casinos appeal primarily to people with disposable income, and, in most cases, provide jobs and help promote economic growth.

Morin, the former chairman, said he expects the new panel to uncover “horrific” social problems linked to the expansion of gambling. But, given his own experience, he doubted that Congress would further regulate the industry.

“I don’t think, in this climate, that the Congress is particularly interested in listening,” Morin said.

The gaming industry and anti-gambling crusaders will pressure the new panel to make some kind of definitive statement on all these issues, but it’s unlikely that either side will be validated.

“We’re so divided on this issue,” said Bob Maginnis, a senior policy adviser for the Family Research Council, a group that opposes gambling. “I think, in the end, it’s going to be a kind of neutral outcome that is not going to satisfy anyone.”


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