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Rein In Gambling, Opponents Ask Federal Panel Anti-Gaming Groups Say Industry’s Effect On Economy Not Worth Social Costs

More than two dozen opponents of legalized gambling pleaded with a federal commission Wednesday to “put a leash” on the gambling industry to keep casinos and slot machines out of their communities.

“How many incidents of gambling-related crime will convince this commission that enough is enough?” said Mary Handley, an anti-gambling organizer from Maryland, where the industry is trying to gain a foothold.

The opponents included state politicians, church groups, community activists, law enforcement officials and civic associations from around the country. Supporters of the gaming industry also spoke, but the opponents’ testimony dominated most of the two hours set aside by the commission for public comment on its two-year task.

The National Gambling Impact Study Commission, created by Congress, is conducting a review of the economic and social fallout of gambling. It will issue a report in 1999.

While the anti-gaming industry side was represented by some high-profile groups - the League of Women Voters and the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, for example - the supporters chose a different route.

The top names in the gaming industry were there, but instead of trotting out their executives or polished public relations emissaries, casinos like Harrah’s and Bally’s opted for more down-to-earth faces to make their case.

“In my time in the Atlantic City region, I’ve seen wages increase, noncasino jobs emerge, quality housing be created and good people move from welfare to work,” said Clinton Van Berry, a games supervisor at Harrah’s Atlantic City, N.J., and the financial officer for his hometown of West Cape May, N.J.

Others lauded the positive effect of casino revenues that help cities and states with money for schools and other programs.

But every positive word about gambling was trumped on the negative side, just by the sheer weight of the numbers.

Mark Andrews of Casino Watch Inc. a St. Louis anti-gambling group, drew some suppressed chuckles from the audience when he told them of Missouri’s experience with the gambling industry.

“We were sold on nostalgic, old time riverboats that would conduct gambling during two-hour cruises, with betting limits in place to prevent addiction,” he said.

“In just two years, now we have massive casinos, decorated to look like boats, no engines in them, located off the river in man-made pools.”

Besides the social and moral costs, opponents warned of what they said was the perilous effect on the political order.

The gambling industry was a major player in the 1996 elections.

It gave about $4 million in “soft money” contributions to parties, which is beyond the allowable donations to specific candidates. That was nearly eight times more than it gave in 1992, according to Common Cause, a Washington-based citizen action group.

“Legislators don’t have time to study the issue deeply,” said state Rep. Joe Battisto of Pennsylvania, an opponent. “Their support figures on the fact that they hear about jobs, but without the substantial costs of regulating the social problems of gambling.”


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