During the next few months, state lawmakers will tackle a two billion dollar budget deficit. Some politicians are calling for new gambling establishments in order to pay the bills. Others suggest new gambling as a voluntary, "painless" way to provide state subsidies for professional sports. Some politicians see gambling profits as "easy money."
Taxes are a political hot potato. Politicians strive to cut taxes, and certainly to avoid raising them, even if it means cutting essential government services. New forms of revenue are needed to fill the gaps, and public officials often turn to gambling profits to meet the needs.
Some Minnesota communities use proceeds from "charitable gambling" to buy basic safety gear for fire departments and equipment for schools. The state pays for environment and natural resource needs with money from the state lottery. Native American tribes meet urgent health and human service needs with casino profits.
But gambling revenue comes with a heavy price. Most Minnesotans spend money on gambling. While most are able to control their gambling, a small but significant number lose control and are unable to stop. Like an out-of-control drug user, they are addicted to gambling.
People don't like to talk about compulsive gambling. It is too painful, and there is a social stigma against gambling addicts. But one rural minister told me he has presided over three funerals for suicides related to gambling debt in the last couple years. And conversations with other ministers suggest his experience is not unique.
Children are particularly vulnerable when a parent becomes addicted to gambling. A county social worker tells of children who innocently leave home in the morning, and return on the school bus only to be taken away by child protection workers as the bank forecloses their home over gambling debt. In other cases, police or child protection are called to "buy" children out of a casino daycare after a parent has gambled away every last dollar.
Low-income children frequently suffer from gambling even when their parents gamble modestly, as scarce household income is diverted from food and other necessities to lottery tickets or pull-tabs.
Several years ago, a third-year Minnesota law student made headlines when she was arrested for bank robbery. Although she never had so much as a speeding ticket, she turned to armed robbery to pay her gambling losses.
Domestic violence, family breakups, bankruptcies, embezzlement, theft, and suicides are the real costs of gambling. They affect not just the gambler, but also the spouse, the children, employers, friends and neighbors -- the whole community. These costs ultimately increase the burdens on government and taxpayers.
Increased public awareness about the problem is needed. The state has a hotline and several treatment programs available to help people with gambling problems, but most people are unaware that help is available. Family members are often unaware of a gambling addiction until too late, after the gambler has spent every dollar in savings, run up huge credit card debts, and secretly taken out a second or even third mortgage on the house. There is a need for more research, more education and prevention, and more treatment.
With an inability to discuss taxes openly, it is not surprising to find gambling money used as an easy answer. Several years ago, during debate over legislation to ban state lottery advertising, one lawmaker who had been a strong opponent, said he could no longer support a ban on lottery advertising. Why? "Because the state needs the money."
Too many people are addicted to gambling. It has a costly toll. It is time to question whether governments relying so heavily on gambling revenue are addicted to gambling too.