We've Caught Up To Franco's Spain

COMMENT

December 13, 1992|By BRIAN SULLAM

From watching television, I see "El Gordo" has come back to haunt me.

In 1965 and 1966, I spent a school year living and studying in Barcelona.

Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator who gained power in 1939, was still in power. For all of my Spanish friends, the pressing question of the day was when he would die and free the country from his tight control. (He lived another decade.)

The other pressing question was how many tickets of the Christmas lottery -- known as "El Gordo" -- they should buy. "El Gordo" -- "the fat one" in English -- referred to the size of the prize. As I recall, it was about $1 million.

The Christmas lottery was the largest of many government-run lotteries. The hoopla and hype surrounding this lottery exceeded the others by a factor of three. All of Barcelona's newspapers carried stories about previous winners -- usually peasants from the most destitute areas of the country who were now leading lives of leisure.

In the government-owned tobacco shops, there were large posters announcing the Christmas lottery as well as its large prize. On street corners, blind vendors peddled the Christmas ,, lottery tickets along with their normal selection of daily and weekly tickets.

Some of my friends were buying strips of "El Gordo" tickets, which cost about $3 each. At that time, $3 could buy a full-course meal and several glasses of wine at a decent restaurant in Barcelona.

I did not get caught up in the excitement. In fact, I told a couple of my friends I was lucky to live in the United States where the government didn't have to raise the bulk of its revenue by selling lottery tickets.

Our government, I told them, was much more forthright in obtaining the money it needed. The people's representatives in Congress or state legislatures debated and voted on the taxes in public. We also had a progressive tax structure that placed the heavier burden on those who could best afford it, I added.

Twenty-seven years later, we've caught up to the Spain of 1965. The Maryland State Lottery Agency has decided that a $10 million "El Gordo" drawing is just the ticket for reviving flagging interest in the Maryland lottery. The craven method of taxation used by a dictator has now become the state of Maryland's answer to its continuing budget crisis.

My Spanish friends would be having a good laugh.

Raising state revenue through lotteries is an underhanded and inequitable method of taxation. Only the people who buy lottery tickets pay the tax. Those who refuse to participate -- because they recognize the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of the state -- escape taxation. Surveys show that fewer than half of Maryland residents buy lottery tickets.

Meanwhile, the poor, the gullible and the desperate belly up to counters across the state and spend their precious earnings on the dream of hitting the big one.

That same dream of getting rich was behind the push to legalize video poker machines in the 10 lodges of Carroll's fraternal organizations.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars would pour into the treasuries of these lodges. Instead of sharing the proceeds with the owners of the video machines under the table as they do now, the proponents argued, the lodges would give the county government 10 percent off the top and then split the net profits with county charities.

Listening to the proponents of these video poker machines, you might have thought that playing a video poker machine in an Elks or Moose lodge would be a charitable act rather than gambling.

Let's not kid ourselves. Video poker is an effective way to transfer a great deal of money out of the pockets of many into those of a few. The hundreds of dollars in cash is a tempting target for greedy individuals.

Our recent history is replete with examples of government agencies that were supposed to monitor large financial organizations and protect us from avaricious thieves. The billions of tax dollars being used to fund the nation's savings and loan bailout is clear evidence that the massive federal monitoring effort failed.

Why invite trouble with video poker? Why encourage the notion of quick riches? Yes, there are people who hit the jackpot, but the majority of the gamblers don't.

If government needs money, let it be upfront about raising it. Let's not hide behind "El Gordo," nor justify legalizing video poker as the work of charity.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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