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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 14, 2010

A desperate, losing wager for Hawaii


You've read our opinion on legalized gambling, so what's yours? E-mail your letter with a limit of 200 words to letters@honoluluadvertiser.com with your name and daytime phone number and we'll print an expanded collection of letters on gambling this week.

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Voting to make gambling legal in Hawai'i would be the dumbest thing legislators could do this year.

The smartest thing would be for legislators this week to put all of the gambling legalization bills in a drawer and stop wasting time discussing moneymaking schemes that only a loser could love.

There are dozens of reasons to object to legalizing gambling and they've all been thoroughly aired as Hawai'i has hemmed and hawed on this issue for more than 40 years.

In our view, these are the three most powerful reasons not to invite gambling into Hawai'i:

• The experience of 48 other states clearly points to staggering social costs that outweigh economic benefits.

• Hawai'i residents would be among the most reliable casino customers. Legalizing gambling isn't keeping local money out of Las Vegas, it's diverting money that would have been spent on consumer goods locally.

• Legalizing gambling would forever alter the character of Hawai'i.

Legislators themselves acknowledged the danger of addiction and financial ruin when an early version of House Bill 2251, which would allow the establishment of one casino on O'ahu. The bill required that gamblers be from out of state and that they have a roundtrip airline ticket in hand.

That language was later removed, but it so clearly summarizes legislative intent: "Let those suckers from California empty their wallets and take their headaches home."

Talk about a trifecta: paternalism, cynicism and discrimination, all in one bill.

To their credit, most legislators aren't even pretending that gambling is anything but a shameless money grab they're only considering because they've run out of other ideas. They say that desperate times call for desperate measures, but desperation rarely creates smart public policy.

But some are trying to concoct an excuse for legalization by invoking a higher social purpose that gambling will subsidize. House Bill 2759 takes this tack by establishing casinos on Hawaiian Home Lands and directing that 80 percent of the gambling proceeds go to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, with the rest going to the general fund.

Other states have done the same thing, trying to mask the stink of state-sponsored gambling by earmarking money for public schools, the arts, the elderly and presumably widows and orphans, too.

Even if you don't buy the arguments about addiction, crime and community peril, the best reason of all to oppose gambling is the most practical: It just isn't the big moneymaker everyone thinks it is.

A 2000 study commissioned by gambling advocates put the new tax revenue generated by two O'ahu casinos at $143 million a year. If you accept the numbers, with one casino you're looking at $72 million a year, a fat chunk of change but barely enough to buy back 14 furlough Fridays.

John Radcliffe, the longtime pro-gambling lobbyist, said last week that "making gaming legal in Hawai'i is the most intelligent thing that this Legislature could do this year."

That sets the bar pretty low. The Legislature could do many more intelligent things this year, starting with the refusal to support legalized gambling.