Gambling once was illegal in Alaska, but the barriers have fallen. How long, some wonder, before they will be totally erased?
In other states, gaming of all kinds has made inroads to astonishing degrees.
In Alaska, for years and years the Nenana Ice Classic was blessed as the state's only legal gambling enterprise. But later the floodgates were opened. Pull tabs, bingo, raffles and more -- all winked at under the guise that they supported worthy charitable causes -- came along to make gambling a big money business here.
So far, a state lottery and casino gambling -- slot machines, roulette, blackjack, craps, pari-mutuel betting on horse races, sports books and other Las Vegas-type attractions -- have been blocked in Alaska. And so far, despite what has happened in many states, including Washington and Oregon, there has been no move here to introduce gambling on Indian land under the operation and sponsorship of tribal groups.
Those philosophically opposed to organized gambling regard this, of course, as a very good thing.
But whether betting is authorized by a state as a commercial venture or whether it flourishes on Indian reservations largely out of state jurisdiction, there is no denying that Americans -- in an age of prosperity -- are willing to bet millions on the turn of a card, the roll of the dice, the spin of a wheel, or the glittering whirl of a slot machine. The numbers are staggering, as we were reminded in an item a week or so ago in the Oregonian.
A Portland economist, Robert Whelan, reported that Oregonians spent nearly $1 billion on gambling in 1999, up 8 percent from the previous year. They spent four times as much on gambling than they did on reading materials and a little less than half as much as they spent on all other forms of entertainment.
In Oregon, most of that was spent in Indian casinos -- many as big and fancy as those in Las Vegas, complete with dazzling shows by Hollywood headliners.
In Washington state, gambling in Indian casinos also is a big time operation. But other casinos have now been licensed commercially -- starting out basically as card rooms, and rapidly becoming high-end gambling operations, offering everything but slot machines.
Across the country, gambling has spread to almost every corner of the land -- from the Atlantic City casino hotels to river boats on the Mississippi, from one state lottery to the next.
For a lot of very good reasons, Alaska has managed to stem the tide. But whether it will be able to do so much longer is open to question.
Long term, we wouldn't be willing to lay a bet against it.
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