Talk Story


Sunday, December 16, 2001

Gambling -- the
worst political idea
since Prohibition

MY advice to Sen. Bobby Bunda and other legislators now being wooed by casino lobbyists is to consider the wordy words of Garrison Keillor, host of "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show:

"Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known."

Got that?

Hawaii is lucky not to have legalized gambling. We ought to glory in that fact and do more to promote our being one of only two states without it.

I don't get it. Here we are in a mid-Pacific tropical paradise, yet our elected representatives seem to be hell-bent on turning the place into a seedy, urban, smoke-filled poker parlor, racetrack or casino. Next, they'll be changing the state slogan from "perpetuated in righteousness" to "rien ne vas plus."

Couldn't one of the reasons why more than six million people come here every year be that it's one of the few places they can escape the sleaze?

Touting gambling, lobbyist John Radcliffe makes the ironic argument that "there is nothing you can do to improve our public schools or our university fast enough that will improve the economic conditions as quickly."

Since gambling is essentially a tax on the mathematically challenged, using it to improve education, particularly in math, would be self-defeating. Today's generation of would-be gamblers who don't fathom the laws of probability would be replaced by a new generation that understands the odds and would refuse to gamble, legally or otherwise.

Jai alai originated in the Basque region of Northern Spain where it was first played outdoors, bouncing a rubber ball against the wall of a church. It migrated to pre-Castro Cuba and then to Florida. Today, it's like handball on steroids, played by incredibly deft athletes. People bet on each point and on the game's outcome.

Legalizing jai alai in Bridgeport, Conn., and licensing a fronton was going to turn that city's economy around. In 1976, its first full year of operation, $143 million was wagered, $119 million paid out in winnings and 1.66 million people came through the turnstiles.

However, by 1994 attendance had shrunk to 211,000. Only $30.3 million was wagered and $24.5 million paid in winnings. The next year, the Bridgeport jai alai fronton was converted into a greyhound track and began trading dates with the track in Milford, Conn., to avoid market saturation problems.

The city of Bridgeport filed for bankruptcy in 1990.

Envision an empty casino next to our empty convention center -- they'd make nice bookends.

Think about it: If gambling is available in 48 other states, why would someone come from the mainland to Hawaii to gamble? Why is the so-called "gaming industry" so hot to get into Hawaii?

Yes, there's the Asian visitor market, but exporting the cash of local people must also be a primary goal. Not everybody has time to go to Las Vegas to blow a few thousand and, like any other mature business, gaming is looking for ways to scrape up a little growth here and a little there to keep the owners happy.

Why are Hawaii politicians interested? They say it's because the state gets to skim a few percent off the top, increasing revenues without raising taxes. They don't say they get to create an entire new bureaucracy to oversee gambling with lots of new patronage and civil service positions to fill with cronies.

Always trying to come up with a new game, gambling companies always want to stretch the rules and regulations. Once established in Hawaii, they'll keep wining, dining and fattening the campaign coffers of all their new friends in the Legislature. Now that the Bishop Estate has changed its ways, it's hard for a guy on a legislator's salary to resist that kind of action.

Of course, there would be many trips to other cities for "research," too.

My great-uncle Phil O'Hara made a fine living at East Coast racetracks. For decades he operated pari-mutuel betting on pacers and trotters in New Hampshire and Maine during the summer and in Florida in the winter. He made a handsome salary, always stayed at good hotels and every two years he traded in his Cadillac for a new one.

Phil would never bet on a horse. "Guys who play the horses drive Chevys."

John Flanagan is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
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