| Rolling the Dice with Quality of Life
Will New Mexico Follow The Fate of Other States That Have Lost to Gambling?
Recently, the University of New Mexico and the state Department of Health did a study on the effects of gambling in the state, which found that already 40,000 New Mexicans are pathological gamblers-that's 5 percent of the population of our state hooked on gambling. Terrence Brunner, a gambling expert and executive director of the Better Government Association (BGA), visited Albuquerque recently and says New Mexico is in danger of following Illinois and New Jersey into the over-whelming economic and social costs of widespread casino gaming.
In 1996, professors William N. Thompson and Ricardo C. Gazel of the University of Nevada Las Vegas conducted a BGA study on the effects of riverboat gambling on the state of Illinois. Thompson and Gazel found that the social costs of one pathological gambler is $10,000 a year; this includes the economic cost of debt, insurance, crime, incarceration and clinical treatment. At this figure, which Brunner said is quite moderate New Mexico can expect to spend $400 million a year in social costs.
BGA is a citizens' watchdog that conducts public policy research. Though the group does not openly dispute the morality of gambling, like many anti-gambling and Christian coalitions do, BGA does argue that it is immoral for a government to set up a tax system that depends on people losing their money.
Summing it up, Brunner said the chief economic analyst of the Nevada Gaming Commission told him: Gambling's nothing but a very regressive tax on the poorest people in society.... The people who are hooked are the politicians; they're hooked on the money".
In Wisconsin, Thompson and Gazel did a study of Indian gaming, and they concluded that there was no net economic impact-none whatsoever. Brunner said: AII that was happening was poor people, the players, were losing their money, the poor players-the Indians.... They're paying your taxes" With local players instead of new tourists, Brunner says, there is very little, if any, job creation; gambling simply initiates a massive transfer of money from the owners of local business to the owners of casinos.
"Gambling's nothing but a very regressive tax on the poorest people in society ".
In Illinois, Thompson and Gazelle found that 84 percent of gamblers on the casino boats were locals, and a majority of the out-of-state players traveled 50 miles or less expressly to gamble. Conversely, in Vegas, the world's greatest gambling success story, 85 percent of players are from out of state.
The people losing money in the Illinois casinos were locals and, sadly the poor. The demographics of the gamblers are that they have low annual incomes, they are younger, largely nonwhite, unmarried, unemployed or unskilled laborers and they have a lower level of education. Many of these players were losing over 5 percent of their annual incomes at casinos; and, the real shocker, 40 percent of the unemployed gamblers lost over 25 percent of their income.
Another snag in the hope of gaming's economic rescue of the state, Brunner says-and perhaps the most detrimental to the social cost of gaming-is that gaming defies the very structure of New Mexico's tourism industry: culture, quality of life and, well, shopping. In Chicago, BGA interviewed 415 "cultural shoppers" and determined that most of them stayed three days and spent about $1,100 during their visit. When asked to rank what would attract them to the city, No. 1 was more museums, second was free music, third was shopping, fourth was amusement parks and last was casinos. No one comes to New Mexico to gamble either: You got Las Vegas over there, why the hell would you ever want to come here to gamble? All this does is train people to want to go to Las Vegas," Brunner said.
Regardless, gambling is here; these are the figures, but no one knows yet what the impacts of Indian gaming will be. "The only thing that I would say in respect to the people living here is that you're rolling the dice with the quality of life," Brunner said. Ten years from now, he predicts, somebody will do a study and realize the real economic and social impacts of gaming: Just as in Illinois, public opinion will flip-flop, anti-gambling groups will go ballistic and the legislature will be bombarded. The next logical step in the near future, he said, is that local businesses begin to want video gaming to compete with casinos-which Brunner calls the "crack cocaine" of gambling. Be careful of wide-open video poker all over the place," he warned. "You could really screw this place up."
With all the research that BGA has done, though, Brunner says there still is no one who knows how to undo gambling once it opens up in the state. "Once you get them in here it's going to be a bitch (to get them out). Because the politicians are hooked on the taxes."
Weekly Alibi, 3/24/97
On Assignment - Jessica English