Friday, October 28th, 2016

Thanks for playing, suckers


Bruce Murphy of Milwaukee Magazine wrote about one of the worst addictions of the legislature this week, and it isn’t booze.

In 1987, state legislators created the Wisconsin lottery but were morally queasy about the spectacle of government trying to hook people on gambling. So the law included a unique provision that said no public funds (including lottery proceeds) could be spent on promotional advertising.

But soon a conflict arose. Legislators, you see, began to get hooked on the money coming in from the lottery, money that was targeted to tax relief, and made them look more fiscally responsible. In its first year, the lottery generated just $230 million in ticket sales, producing about $70 million in tax relief. But that soon grew, particularly after the state joined the multi-state Powerball lottery, and by 1994-’95, total sales had hit $518 million, spinning off more than $200 million in tax relief. That’s a lot of free money for legislators, and the last thing they wanted was to see it decline.

This put pressure on state gaming officials to keep those lottery dollars coming. The obvious way to do this was by running ads designed to get Wisconsin citizens all excited about gambling. And so legislators simply looked the other way and never bothered to police the legal requirement that lottery proceeds could not be spent on promotional ads.

So the advertising budget continues to go up while the state continues to play the taxpayers for suckers.

The current condition of partially legalized gambling, a government lottery and a tribal gaming oligarchy, is indefensible. We have raised some state residents and the state government to a privileged status of being allowed to prey on the poorest of us, while banning any gambling activity for the rest of us. Either we should recognize the societal harm of legalized gambling and ban it entirely, or decide that the harm is within tolerable limits and legalize it for everyone.

Allowing the government to ban gambling but sell lottery tickets would be like the state banning tobacco sales except for “Wisconsin Badger’s Best Government Cigarettes” with a picture of Governor Jim Doyle on every pack. You’ll go “forward” with our government-approved unfiltered brand. The state government lottery is even more absurd when you consider that the state frowns on the occasional $5 office pool on a Packer game but encourages gambling with the state (at poorer odds) on Packer scratch off tickets.

When you consider the reasonable complaint by the Menomonee tribe that they are being unfairly prevented from operating a casino in Kenosha, it’s hard to muster any sympathy for the tribe when they are not the only ones banned from opening the proposed casino. If they were to push for legalized gambling for everyone, at least then we might be sympathetic to their cries at the unfairness of it all. Instead, all their complaint says to us is that gambling has a corrupting influence on government, made worse by the government’s ability to pick winners and losers.

It’s time for the government to get out of the gambling business. Get rid of the lottery and ban the casinos, or legalize gambling. Let there be fair and open competition, or get rid of gambling entirely. Either way, the state should not be preying upon the poorest by promoting a form of gambling.

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