Legalized gambling is not the answer for Hawaii’s debt-ridden economy, say religious leaders who joined an organized effort to defeat 17 gaming-related bills introduced this legislative session.
None of the bills advanced out of committee before yesterday’s deadline for nonbudget bills to be placed for a vote in their originating chamber.
More gambling bills than usual were pitched this year because of the state’s deepening fiscal crisis, said the Rev. John Heidel, president of the Interfaith Alliance of Hawaii. For the fourth year, he said, the group rallied members to submit testimony opposing the bills, in conjunction with the Hawaii Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, he said.
Hawaii and Utah are the only states without any forms of legalized gambling.
Gaming-related proposals included the establishment of a casino in Waikiki, the authorization of shipboard gambling and the investigation of Hawaii’s participation in a multistate lottery.
The last bill to stay alive, House Bill 1225, sought permission for bingo games to be conducted on Hawaiian homelands. On Feb. 18 it was referred to the House Finance Committee, which did not schedule a hearing on it, effectively killing it.
"We have had an unprecedented number of gambling bills introduced this year," said Dianne Kay, president of the Hawaii Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. Eight such bills were introduced in 2010, and 11 bills in 2009, she said. "Prior to these last three years, there were only a few gambling bills introduced each year, and they were almost never heard," she said.
The Interfaith Alliance includes people representing all faiths and denominations, who "base their opposition on the social impact of gambling as an addiction, rather than it being a spiritual sin," Heidel said.
"In addition, economists and sociologists, who have been researching gambling for over 20 years, have provided ample documentation that funding from gambling just doesn’t work, whether it’s for education, transportation, government or other community infrastructure.
"I think if we are going to be consistent with our values, we need to reject the idea of churches using bingo to raise funds. If prizes are offered in relation to winning a game, it’s gambling — no matter the purpose for raising the funds," Heidel said.
Violet Horvath, first vice president of the coalition, said permitting church bingo games "is a totally separate issue." Church bingo is usually for a charitable or one-time event, and is not linked to the harmful effects of gambling on people’s lives, said Horvath, a social work professor at the University of Hawaii.
The Hawaii Coalition Against Legalized Gambling focuses on educating the public and legislators on the social ills of gambling, which far outweigh any economic benefits gambling might offer, she said, citing the damage to her own family.
"It is not a winning situation. My mom was a pathological gambler, and my father had problems with gambling that interfered with life. I understand the destruction of families," Horvath said.
She said the coalition in February brought in Earl L. Grinols, a professor of economics at Baylor University in Texas, who presented studies to lawmakers that showed "the minute you open the door to one thing, like the lottery, the gambling lobby is not going to be happy with just one thing. … Once the train gets going, it is extremely difficult to stop it."
The coalition says studies show legalized gambling leads to higher high-school dropout rates and an increase in child abuse cases, gambling addiction and family discord, especially among low-income families.
The Rev. Charles Buck, Hawaii Conference minister of the United Church of Christ, said his denomination has given money to the coalition and that its members have submitted testimony in support.
"Religious leaders have been more united against gambling (than other issues) because of its detrimental effects on people and their families and how it disproportionately affects those least able to afford it," Buck said.