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Editorial | Island Voices

Gambling is not the quick fix Hawaii legislators are looking for


Gambling legislation sure is a hardy perennial. This year no fewer than 17 bills have been up for consideration by our lawmakers; the strategy seems to be to throw everything on the wall in the hope that something sticks.

During the campaign even our new governor expressed his support for Hawaii’s participation in a multistate lottery to help finance education. More recently, his spokesperson says, the governor has come to understand that Hawaii might not benefit so much, and is now waiting to see what the Legislature comes up with.

Our legislators should reject all these proposals. None of these bills are in Hawaii’s best interest. And if the Legislature does disgorge one or more of them, our governor should veto the action. Forty-eight other states have some form of gambling, and their populations have made their bargain with these moral and social issues. Why shouldn’t we do the same?

As Hawaii Pacific University professor and First Hawaiian Bank economist Leroy Laney and I pointed out in an article in the book "The Price of Paradise" some years ago, gambling in any form just doesn’t pencil out for Hawaii. The reason has nothing to do with religious convictions, though such beliefs will be important to some. Nor is this directly about the social costs of gambling in terms of crime, addiction and financial distress for our working people, though those social costs will be high — three times the benefits, according to the latest research.

Simply put, those 48 other states are not Hawaii. They are not island societies, with all that implies for vulnerability on the one hand and the importance of community on the other. And they don’t have our remarkable cultural traditions — the essence of the industry that comprises 25 percent of our economy.

Destinations go to great lengths to differentiate themselves in the global marketplace, to offer something unique. Over the last half-century Hawaii has been more successful than most, creating a brand image of a safe, stunningly beautiful, remarkably welcoming and culturally singular place.

Bringing gambling in any form to the Aloha State would compromise the world’s perception of the special and unparalleled nature of Hawaii. Yes, there are times when it makes sense to mimic the attributes of other destinations; up-to-date Internet facilities and telecommunications networks are a good example.

But gambling is hardly worth emulating. It’s an indoor sport in the greatest outdoor location on earth, and its appearance in Hawaii would be a graft onto Hawaiian culture that simply wouldn’t take — and the attendant crime and social problems would damage our global image in the process.

I know the revenues from gambling sound great. But other states have found that sustaining revenue performance from gambling in general, and from lotteries in particular, is difficult.

Today’s budget concerns notwithstanding, there are brighter days — and more revenues — ahead. The U.S. economy is on the mend, and Hawaii’s economy — which has consistently outperformed the national economy during the last decade — is also on the rebound.

This is not the time to make a permanent change in our cultural fabric to address a temporary financial problem. The introduction of the mongoose and other invasive species to Hawaii is the operative image here. Once on shore in any form, gambling will be impossible to eradicate.

Gambling is not the quick fix our legislators are looking for, but rather an unimaginative budget solution. It’s time to acknowledge and respect the force of our remarkable cultural and island traditions, and to move on to other business.


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