16 April 2010

When in doubt, just get more people to gamble.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported recently that State Representative Paul Costa (D-Wilkins) has proposed legislation that would enable the state to plug a massive hole in the transportation budget with tax revenues gained from the legalization of video poker machines. Mr. Costa’s idea is further proof that once the barrier to legalized gambling was broken in Pennsylvania, the flood of casinos, proposed casinos and now gambling machines permeating local neighborhoods that many predicted has come to pass.

Anyone who has step foot in bar in Pennsylvania has seen these machines for years. Although signs might warn that they are merely for entertainment, not gambling, any regular customer quickly learns that he, or she, can receive payment from the bartender if they win. As such, the machines occupied a place of legal limbo for many years- the state would make the occasional raid on an establishment and confiscate machines if gambling was observed, but mostly just looked the other way. Now that Pennsylvania, like many other states, is faced with massive deficits, lawmakers are turning to gambling in order to close the revenue gap. Pennsylvania has gone very quickly from a state that had little legalized gambling (mostly off track betting) to one that has approved a raft of new casinos, planned casinos, and now legalized machines in non-casino locations.

From my point of view, I could care less if people gambled or not. Although I consider it a waste of time and money, I have to admit to filling out the occasional March Madness bracket and buying a powerball ticket when the prize amount reaches ridiculous levels. Live and let live, as long as it isn’t hurting me. My opposition arises, however, when it appears that the state is taking a lazy shortcut to raise revenue (instead of, God forbid, cutting the state budget) that preys primarily on the poor and elderly. Who will be the primary customers for video poker machines in bars ? Professionals ? Tradesmen ? No, it will primarily come from down and out people drinking in the middle of the day and praying to hit a jackpot big enough to get them through the end of the week. State sponsored and approved gambling is the ultimate regressive tax being paid by people that can least afford it. In many cases because these people may also receive public assistance, their gambling revenues provide the ultimate means of recycling- money from taxpayer “A” is given to taxpayer “B” by the state “PA.” Tax payer “B” blows the money on gambling and the money is returned in the form of gambling machine taxes back to “PA.” The state “PA” then uses said tax money to build an even larger bureaucracy to monitor gambling in the state and passes another hefty chunk to assorted political strap hangers and flunkies in the construction business who are contracted to fix our decrepit infrastructure.

While we are at it, let’s quit using the euphemism “revenues” when it applies to gambling. They aren’t revenues, they are losses. Money lost by citizens who can’t afford to lose anything. Although we like to think they are just the occasional customer that enjoys playing a machine while drinking a beer on a Saturday afternoon, we need to admit that the primary customer for this type of enterprise is the degenerate gambler (quite possibly an alcoholic to boot) that is blowing everything he or she has on the slim hope that they will hit it big. Quite often, the degenerate gambler is in turn stealing from friends and family, or their place of employment, in order to support their habit. Families are destroyed, relationships shattered, children are neglected- hey, but at least we can fix more potholes on I-80 (the grand old lady of Pennsylvania highway construction incompetence.)

I think the legislature should next consider offering our fellow citizens their own player's cards so that they can qualify for a massive state funded buffet in Harrisburg.

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