Lawmakers, Mead gave societal costs of lottery short shrift
— November 5, 2013
Wyoming has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, plus huge problems with domestic violence and substance abuse. The state has many workers who have two minimum wage jobs and struggle to pay their bills.
Into this mix of social strife, state officials chose to add another form of gambling after saying no to a lottery for the past 14 years. The Legislature approved and Gov. Matt Mead signed into law – though he has reservations about the societal costs – a bill that established the Wyoming Lottery Corporation (WLC).
The pressure exerted by lottery proponents to let people play the games in the state, instead of spending millions of dollars on lotteries outside Wyoming, finally won the day. It all came down to money, of course. Supporters sold lawmakers on the idea after coming up with a popular use for the lottery proceeds that the state needs to replace dwindling mineral tax revenues. The first $6 million that the lottery generates each year will go to cities, towns and counties; funds above that amount will go into a public schools account.
A major selling point was the fact that the WLC will not use any state funds and will be self-sustaining. While its nine-member board is appointed by the governor, and the Legislature set basic rules for the lottery’s operation, lawmakers decided they will wait six years before reviewing the system and determining whether it should continue.
Six years is a long time for what amounts to a risky social experiment. Wyoming already has thousands of problem gamblers; how many more will be created by the opportunity to gamble at the neighborhood convenience store, and how will we provide treatment for them? Moreover, as opponents of the lottery claim, people with little or no disposable income are likely to spend money they can’t afford to buy tickets, with the enticing dream of quickly getting rich. It amounts to a regressive tax on the poor.
Lest anyone think I have any moral objections to gambling, let me put that notion to rest. I play poker regularly and slot machines occasionally, and I’ve bought lottery tickets in other states – especially when the jackpot reaches staggering proportions. But I’ve also seen the dangers of gambling by people whose addictions are uncontrollable without professional help. One acquaintance in another state lost his house, his job and ultimately his marriage.
Wyoming needs to encourage people to play its lottery responsibly by setting limits and treating it as entertainment, not as an investment that will eventually pay off if they keep playing more. All of the 43 other states with lotteries have some type of education and prevention programs for problem gambling, and the Wyoming law does take one step to address the problem by allocating up to $200,000 in uncollected winnings to the Department of Health to treat problem gamblers.
However, I question whether it’s remotely enough, and think many legislators who voted for the lottery were extremely short-sighted, and ignorant of the negative impact the games will have on many residents.
During debate on the bill, according to the Casper Star-Tribune, Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) said the gambling addictions needing treatment will probably be caused by other forms of gambling than the lottery. He said people have to wait to find out if they won the lottery, so it does not offer instant gratification.
Burns’ statement also flies in the face of research that has been done in other states with lotteries. The New York Council on Problem Gambling found that 40 percent of the calls to its hotline were from people with trouble related to the lottery. Casinos only accounted for about 28 percent of the calls from addicted gamblers.
Mead, who said he has concerns about the negative impacts of more gambling in the state, signed the bill anyway, saying it will “keep Wyoming dollars in Wyoming.” He also said he believes the lottery bill doesn’t include games that foster gambling addictions. He couldn’t be more wrong.
One of the few lawmakers who seems to understand how prevalent problem gambling is in Wyoming and the risks involved in approving the lottery is Sen. Paul Barnard (R-Evanston). He told the Gillette News-Record that the $200,000 earmarked to help treat problem gamblers is woefully underfunded, because it’s enough to treat 40 people at most. The senator also said he expects to see an increase in divorce and crime due to the lottery.
Ed Atchison of the Wyoming Council on Problem Gambling said a 2009 study identified 8,000 problem gamblers in Wyoming, and 4,000 pathological gamblers. The first refers to people who gamble despite harmful negative consequences or a desire to stop. People in the second category gamble compulsively to such an extent that it has a severe negative effect on a person’s job, relationships, mental health or other important aspects of life.
Atchison said he thinks the estimated problem gambling population in Wyoming is far too low. He pointed out that the study only looked at adults. “There’s a high percentage of youths who are problem gamblers who have been overlooked,” he said.
Yet the lottery law includes a provision that says while it’s illegal for anyone under 18 to buy a lottery ticket, anyone over that age can buy them for minors as gifts. It effectively fosters the notion in youth that prosperity may be only one winning ticket away, and creates the next generation of players.
Atchison has addressed many of his concerns to the Wyoming Lottery Corporation’s board, and he said the members, including Chairman Brian Scott Gamroth, expressed a desire to work with the council on education, prevention and treatment. Atchison encouraged the board “to be careful about their marketing strategy and target populations.”
“When you lose control of gambling, it becomes a dangerous hazard to you and your family,” he said. “There are direct financial problems and social problems … One in six problem gamblers try at some point to commit suicide. That’s the main reason I got involved in this type of work.
“We know from the experiences of other states that lotteries significantly increase the number of problem gamblers,” Atchison concluded. “This is coming, and we’ve got to be ready for it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that the Wyoming Lottery will offer scratch tickets. It will not.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.
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