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The edge of reason
Casino supporters see nothing but an easy way out

Lotteries, someone said recently, are a tax on people who canít do math. Thatís a pretty good description.

Of $152.8 million bet in Maine lotteries last year, $94.1 was returned to the bettors. Thatís about 62 percent. That means the stateís edge (gambler-speak for profit margin) is almost 40 percent. Mainers who play long enough, in other words, can expect to lose about 40 cents for every dollar they bet. Contrary to what gamblers will tell you, that is not recreation; itís suicide.

If I stood on a stand in the middle of Route 1 somewhere and told motorists that if they gave me $1 when they went up by Iíd give them 60 cents when they came back by, what do you suppose Iíd get? Thereíd be so many McDonalds bags bouncing off me it would look like a popcorn factory.

Hereís the reality: If Mainers had $10 million to bet all year, and bet everything they had each week beginning Jan. 1, they would be down to just over $2 million by Feb. 1. By the end of June, theyíd be down to $28.43. Just imagine.

There would be some big winners, of course. If there werenít, no one would play. The flip side, however, is that to the extent the winners were ahead of the game, the rest of the players would be in the hole more than 40 percent.

Augusta dwellers who support lotteries will say that the losers arenít out the entire 40 percent because of the great public works the stateís lotteries support. The trouble with that line of reasoning, however, is that it argues for increasing the take and presumes it will be wisely spent. Moreover, there is no such thing as a free lunch: Of the $58.7 million in lottery proceeds retained by the state last year, $19.4 million ó 33 percent ó went to operational expenses.

Nonetheless, the lottery is being cited as an example of the benefits that might accrue to the state if only we had a casino. Thatís because casino proponents have gotten nowhere with the argument that they represent opportunity at the local level and are now hoping to grease the skids in cash-strapped Augusta.

I donít envy our elected representatives. Many of our traditional industries are under siege, and we are losing jobs left and right. The issue at this point is not so much who got us into this mess, but how we get out of it.

" How " cuts two ways. One is with respect to the character of the state; the other is with respect to the efficiency of our efforts.

Maine is changing, for sure. And we will be held responsible for whatever shape change takes. A vital tourism industry predicated on Maineís natural attractions is something most of us can live with. But we would also like to live with small farmers, vibrant cities, timber harvesters, and fishermen, and with mills that donít shut down every time you turn around.

Casinos do offer some jobs, but how many of them are careers? Is dealing blackjack the way life should be? On the downside, casinos bring traffic, addiction, and poverty. There is no question in my mind that people who blow paychecks at the tables have only themselves to blame. The question is whether the rest of us want to put up with the fallout.

Proponents who concede that casinos can have destructive effects on personal finances are quick to point out that most players will be from away. The question is, where will the individuals who play most come from? Hereís a hint: Who spends more on the Maine Turnpike ó a family from Connecticut on a summer vacation, or you schlepping your way between Wells and Portland five days a week?

Casinos work a lot like lotteries in that they offer games at which the gamblerís prospects are a mathematical certainty. The roulette ball, for example, lands on double-zero as often as any other number, but you canít bet on it, so the house wins and everyone else loses. All the casino cares is that you bet, and the more you bet, the better. You can win on any given day, but you wonít win every day, and if you play long enough the double-zeros grind you down.

Itís no coincidence that one of the biggest casinos in Vegas is named the Mirage. Casino gambling is predicated on susceptibility to illusion. And if you think a casino can resolve societal problems, youíre experiencing an illusion.

The state wonít run the casino but will get a cut of what is bet, which is known as the handle. In a perfect world, this money would find its way into the pockets of dealers and the bustiers of cocktail waitresses, whence it would make its way into the hands of local merchants, bankers, and the like. Alas, in the world we live in it will instead wind up in the general fund.

As far as many public officials are concerned, that is what the casino debate is all about ó getting their hands on the publicís money. If it were about anything else, you couldnít find eight people in Augusta in favor of casino gambling.

When Bugsy Siegel gazed into the Nevada desert and imagined the worldís glitziest resort, he wasnít thinking about property tax relief or school funding. And what he saw wasnít a mirage, but an opportunity to have people give him their money in return for a pipe dream.

The shame is that elected officials and some of this stateís most enduring citizens are sharing the gangsterís vision.

Jerry Fraser can be reached at cfraser@maine.rr.com

Issue Date: February 13 - 20, 2003
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