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Editorial | Our View

Don’t gamble with Constitution


In the throes of an economic storm, some Hawaii residents may regard as peculiar that legislators are considering whether to urge them to gamble. However, such promotion occurs from coast to coast and Hawaii legislators are considering, among other things, a state-run lottery as a source of revenue. In any event, lawmakers should not turn to a California-like proposition put to voters in the form of a constitutional amendment to legalize any or all forms of gambling.

The Hawaii House Tourism Committee has been presented with 17 gambling-related bills, including one that would put on next year’s ballot a constitutional amendment legalizing slot machines and video poker machines within Waikiki.

Hawaii and Utah are the only states that disallow any kind of commercial gambling, while office pools and friendly wagers are commonplace. Hawaii’s tourism industry is understandable in its concern about casinos and slot machines giving a black eye to Hawaii’s reputation as a family vacation destination.

Georgina Kawamura, the state budget and finance director in the Lingle administration, told legislators a year ago that a state-regulated gambling program would take as much as two years to launch and would require the state to hire more staff to administer. By that time, Hawaii may be able to look back at the economic struggle.

Of note, Nevada now has the nation’s worst unemployment, foreclosure and personal bankruptcy rates in the country.

Polls in the 1990s indicated that most Hawaii residents opposed legalization of gambling. Past legislation to do so has been cast aside on the premise that casinos would stigmatize the islands.

Lotteries have no such stigma. Arkansas last year became the 43rd state to sell lottery tickets. During his campaign last year, Gov. Neil Abercrombie expressed support for a lottery, with proceeds going to education.

State-controlled lottery programs have drawn tickets that total at least $60 billion a year, with nearly $18 billion destined for government coffers. That accounts for an average of 2 percent of the budget, according to the National Conference of States Legislatures, although profits softened in the 2009 fiscal year, dropping in 25 states.

"There’s an old wives’ tale that lotteries are recession-proof," says New York lottery commissioner Gordon Medenica. "But every year, it’s getting harder and harder."

Many states have launched imaginative marketing gimmicks to lure people to buy lottery tickets.

A Commission on Thrift found three years ago that mainland households with incomes below $13,000 spend 9 percent of their income on lotteries, while those making $130,000 or more spend 0.3 percent of their money on lotteries. The average household lottery bets total about $525 a year.

Those known effects should give legislators pause in embracing lottery or any other gambling practice. All gambling discussions revolve around the pursuit of economic dollars, true, but it is the effects of gambling on Hawaii’s social fabric that must be paramount in the deliberations.

Lawmakers should not be so afraid of the issue that they refer the question to voters on whether to inject slot machines or lotteries into the state Constitution.

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