Weighing costs, benefits

Alaska legislators need to decide gaming on merits, not emotions

Posted: Friday, January 23, 2004

There's no doubt that the proposal before the legislature (CSHB240) that would allow electronic gaming machines in licensed beverage dispensary locations continues to be a contentious issue.

This debate, to one degree or another, has taken place in prior legislatures. The controlling issue has been and continues to be centered on the degree of societal impact. Will benefits outweigh costs?

Some concerns are justified and should be attended to if this moderate expansion of gaming takes place in Alaska. However, I feel there has been a loss of perspective, as the issue is now often taken up in an atmosphere of unsubstantiated scare tactics and political rhetoric. This tone has been set by visiting moralists (who may be well meaning), the state's largest newspaper and some larger existing in-state gaming entrepreneurs. With due respect to some individual legislators, I am astounded at the ease of control this loosely orchestrated opposition has garnished over the issue.

Conclusively, this bottleneck, especially in the Senate, may be resultant from the simple lack of responsible scrutiny, not only in the Senate but throughout Alaska's entire political community. I have always believed it to be incumbent upon decision makers to earnestly educate themselves in matters of import.

With the probability of $80 million to the state, according to a recent Department of Revenue projection, debate should be serious and significant. Further, recent surveys and polls, including one by Ivan Moore in Novem-ber, clearly define public support and acceptance of the proposal.

Unfortunately, this may be inconsequential small change now that all eyes are trained on the prize of permanent fund earnings, but that issue is for another column.

Paramount to the opposing argument has been the dubious assumption of overly burdensome social costs. Notably, decision makers have thus far demonstrated a troubling inclination to prematurely formulate their stances, guided to opposition with subjective injections of this dynamic into the debate. Almost exclusively, I've seen heavy reliance on anecdotal quips involving acquaintances or personal experience and observation had in other states. This kind of "substantiation" should be highly problematic for the responsibly informed decision maker. However, it seems not, and emotionalism and demagoguery rule.

In the few attempts I've heard to rationally validate social costs, highly questionable studies (junk science) and citation of the South Carolina experience are depended upon. It is interesting to note that South Carolina allowed its venture to be irresponsibly hijacked by unscrupulous political manipulators who ultimately fashioned true convenience gambling.

This proposition does not promote that model and calls for a responsible regulatory framework mandating problem intervention, designating funds for that purpose.

Initially, I'd hoped for a sound dialogue regarding gaming benefits and consequences. Foremost and quite simply asked, how does the locating of five to 10 electronic gaming machines on licensed premises (708 statewide) constitute the level of alarm set off by the scare tacticians?

In seeking an objective overview of gaming consequences, I attended a National Center for Responsible Gaming conference Dec. 7-9. What I learned should become intrinsic on the continuation of debate this session:

The ultimate decision to gamble is with the individual; it represents a choice.

To properly make a choice, individuals must be informed.

Safety net measures should be promulgated within regulation. These include harm reduction and harm minimization policies and programs.

One percent of the gambling population is categorized as pathological; 2 percent is categorized as problem.

The vast majority of gamblers do so for recreation and entertainment.

Safe levels of gambling participation are possible.

Prohibition is not realistic; focusing on external controls vs. personal self control does not address the reality that people have impulses.

No valid scientific studies exist that quantify social costs.

The poor actually gamble more on lotteries than other forms.

Problem gamblers can be effectively counseled to mitigate problem. Most problem gamblers have a propensity for other addictive disorders. The problem is actually small relative to economic benefit to state, municipalities, licen-sees and nonprofits.

These 10 points are not dubious machinations of my own crafting. They were the underlying themes that constantly surfaced during each breakout session. Each session was facilitated by highly respected keynote speakers involved in the study of problem gambling. There was a broad spectrum of experience presented from the United States, Canada and Europe.

Clinicians and regulators from numerous jurisdictions under the umbrella of the National Center for Responsible Gaming have been for four years assembling baseline scientific information critical not only to those areas that have already implemented gaming but to those that are contemplating doing so.

It is my hope that the Legislature can facilitate visits from those prominent in the field of problem gambling throughout the session. At this juncture of debate on the proposal, and given the controlling atmosphere, it is clearly crucial to the process.

This proposal deserves thorough and honest scrutiny in the light of the Alaska's search for new revenue. When legislators expose themselves to the firsthand knowledge of other states' regulators and clinicians, then and only then can their decision be validated.

Gary Superman of Nikiski is a member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. He also is

president of the Kenai Peninsula Cabaret, Hotel and Restaurant Retailers.

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