Rendell’s Video Poker Proposal: A Loser in Every Way

Feb 11, 2009 | 1 comment

The following op-ed column by Michael Geer is set to appear in a number of newspapers across Pennsylvania.  You can read it here first.

Following on the heels of the massively successful property-tax reduction through slot machines program, the Rendell administration is now proposing a further expansion of gambling: video poker for college tuition.

Oh, wait. Scratch that “massively successful” line. As then Sen. Gibson E. Armstrong said during the 2004 floor debate on the slots bill, “I guarantee homeowners will be paying more in property taxes in five years with slots, than they are today without them.” Bingo.

The truth is that real, substantial property tax reform was likely set back years or even decades by this clever ruse. And all the while the casinos are enriching well-connected friends and patrons of the Commonwealth’s political class.

Expect even worse from this latest proposal. It’s not enough that the governor wants to legalize 70-thousand more addictive purse and wallet vacuum machines in Pennsylvania, now he wants them in virtually every neighborhood, legal at more than 14-thousand locations. The potential is devastating.

Gambling is often a harmful activity and is, therefore, a destructive way to raise tax money. Compulsive gambling leads to the breakdown of marriages and families, as well as to bankruptcy, crime and corruption.

Not only is gambling addictive, but according to Robert Hunter, clinical psychologist at the Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas, video gambling machines “are ‘the crack cocaine’ of gambling because they are so addictive.” People who got hooked on video gambling became compulsive gamblers in about one year, while developing an addiction to other forms (such as horses, sports betting, blackjack, etc.) typically takes more than three times as long.

Even more, the pain to the addict and their family comes more quickly. According to Gamblers Anonymous, those who gamble on horses “hit bottom” in about 20 years while video gambling addicts reach the same stage in about two. A 2003 study of Southern Nevada Gamblers Anonymous members stated, “Without doubt, video poker machines were the game of choice for the G.A. members. Over two-thirds found the machines to constitute ‘serious’ problems for them.”

What’s worse: access creates excess. The lure of nearby machines will be too much for many to bear, increasing addictive behavior. Likewise, local exposure to video poker hooks new players who would not consider going to a casino. If the machine is at their local club and they see others using it, much like a video game, they are likely to give it a shot. After that point, it’s statistics. A certain percentage of those who try it will get hooked.

Add the issue of alcohol to the addictive nature and proximity, and there is an even worse problem. A study of video lottery terminals (equivalent to video poker), shows that the consumption of alcohol increased the time spent gambling, the amount gambled, and the proportion of losing hands.

There is a huge cost to these addictions. Some gamble away savings, children’s college funds, and even their rent and grocery money. Many steal from their employer. A 2001 report estimated the cost of a pathological gambler at $13,586 per year. This high cost is one that taxpayers will ultimately be forced to bear.

And yet, Governor Rendell, who seems to have never met a vice he didn’t want to tax, is perfectly willing to see tens of thousands more of his fellow citizens, many already in difficult economic circumstances, burn their pay, jobless benefits or social security checks at these electronic thieves.

State Police Commissioner Frank Pawlowski says illegal video poker machines are widespread and there’s not the police manpower to deal with it, so therefore the state should at least get a cut of the money to pay college tuitions. Rep. Doug Reichley (R-Lehigh) acknowledged that yes, some bars now have illegal gambling devices, but aptly added, “Prostitution is illegal too, so what’s next? Legalizing prostitution?”

More amazingly, the Governor’s plan calls for the manpower-challenged State Police to oversee this new scheme, and it naively assumes that the bar and tavern owners who now operate machines illegally will suddenly toe the line rather than milk the system even more.

These critiques don’t even delve into the additional pitfalls of creating a college- tuition entitlement, the grade-inflating nature of such schemes, the bias against Pennsylvania’s many quality private colleges, and the corrosive influence this program will have on the ethics of the very students it aims to help.

In this era of economic uncertainly, let us hope the General Assembly will quickly dispose of this proposal, and consign it to a speedy and certain death.