You Bet, Gambling Is Big Business

NEAL R. PEIRCE

October 23, 1990|By Neal R. Peirce

THERE ARE BIG, lavish Indian gambling halls. Casinos ply the Mississippi River. Casino-type gambling is popping up in little Western towns. Lotteries have spread to 33 states and the District of Columbia.

What's not legal in gambling today may be tomorrow. Americans already wager huge sums. If one's to believe the trade journal Gaming & Wagering Business, last year we spent $290 billion on every gambling allure from blackjack to dog races. That is 6.55 percent of Americans' personal income -- three-fifths of the amount we spend on medical care, and almost the equal of our total 50-state outlays for education. Legal and illegal wagering together soared 92 percent from 1982 to 1989.

State governments can take a big share of the credit: They have widened and hyped lotteries so vigorously that sales have been going up 25 percent per year. Politically, it's less painful to sell lottery tickets than raise state taxes. State politicians are as paralyzed at the thought of voter wrath as the limp-wristed budgeteers in Washington.

We may be on a fast track to even more state-condoned or state-sponsored gambling. Since 1964, when New Hampshire inaugurated the country's first 20th-century state-run lottery, and the 1970s, when government-operated off-track betting opened in New York and Atlantic City opened its casinos, legitimization has been spreading like a cancer.

''In 20 or 30 years,'' declares William Eadington of the University of Nevada's Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming, ''it's not inconceivable that casino-style gaming will be available to virtually every community and every citizen in the United States.''

He predicts ''progress is almost inevitable'' in his new book, ''Indian Gaming & The Law'' -- a look at how on- and off-reservation gambling is adding to the U.S. gaming fever. From the Seminoles' bingo activity in Florida in the 1970s, the so-called Indian bingo market has grown to $500 million a year, with 131 bingo or gambling operations run by tribes across the country.

A 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision said once a state legalized any form of gambling, Native Americans had the right to offer the same game -- but without state regulation. Congress followed up with a 1988 law confirming Indian rights to run bingo and card games and obliging states to negotiate with tribes interested in casino games and the like.

''I predict that many Indians will be able to be operating dog tracks, off-track betting, blackjack, craps and even slot machines within the next two years,'' Nelson Rose, a Whittier College law professor, writes in Mr. Eadington's book.

Michigan already has seven Indian-run casinos, in each case the biggest employer on the reservation. (One tribe received a HUD grant to build its casino!) Milwaukee is about to get an Indian bingo hall run by the Potawatomi tribe -- 240 miles from the tribe's reservation. Off-reservation gambling may have an expansive future: Tribes in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Arizona and California are exploring the possibility.

There's something sad to Native Americans' need for gambling income. Excuses range from cutbacks in federal aid to the loss of traditional Indian fishing and agriculture through urban encroachment and pollution.

Indian gambling is still small potatoes compared with Las Vegas or Atlantic City. The newest rage is riverboat gambling -- a throwback to the last century when men in frock coats and diamond studs ran floating poker and three-card monte games on 2,000 boats floating the Mississippi and its tributaries from Indiana to New Orleans.

Illinois and Iowa are now racing to see which will be the first to launch a floating gambling casino on the Mississippi River. Iowa's measure came first. Then interests in Illinois' Quad City area sold their state legislature on the proposition that they couldn't be left behind.

Riverboat gambling was approved by the Mississippi Legislature this summer, providing local residents vote for it. Two prime dock sites for boats are Natchez and Vicksburg. In Missouri, a riverboat gambling bill lost last spring -- ''We're a little backward in Missouri,'' one legislator told the Chicago Tribune. The measure will be reintroduced in January.

Pennsylvania is talking about gambling on the Delaware, Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. There's discussion in West Virginia of matching that with riverboat gaming on the Ohio between Wheeling and Weirton. Perennially strapped New Orleans is considering casinos both on- and off-shore. Riverboat gambling has also aroused interest in Kansas, Colorado, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The grand lure in all this, beyond potential tax revenues, is economic development. The tawdry example of Atlantic City, where casino gambling has compounded law-enforcement problems and provided nothing for impoverished local residents, seems to escape all the boosters.

Legalized gambling is largely regressive taxation -- hitting lower-income groups the hardest. Add in the social costs -- compulsive gambling, ruined homes, high crime -- and legalized gambling's newborn fiscal respectability can be written off as 90 percent sham.

Here and there, constituencies are still rejecting casino gambling proposals. But the hope that the gambling craze can be curbed any time soon has to be seen as one of the longest shots of the '90s.

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