Meetings & Information


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Portsmouth courts social ill

Portsmouth courts social ill
The Virginian-Pilot

There are any number of good reasons, especially in Portsmouth, to fight the huge fees coming for the Downtown and Midtown tunnels: The regressive nature of the tolls; the further atomization of a fragmented region; the precedent they set for a community defined by river crossings.

But replacing one complex set of social ills with the ones caused by gambling is perhaps the worst solution floated so far.

State Sen. Louise Lucas is, once again, pushing for Portsmouth to accept casino gambling. Last year, she promised that gambling revenue would allow Portsmouth to lower its property tax rate. This year, she claims it would allow Portsmouth to cut the Elizabeth River tolls due to begin in February.

In reality, it would burden an already burdened city with an industry that takes a horrifying toll on its host.

Today's casinos, according to a study panel convened by the Institute for American Values ( "are affecting our health, our economics, our politics, our ideas and social values, and perhaps even our sense of who we are as a people and what obligations we have toward one another. [Casinos] appear to be connected in important ways to the rise of American inequality."

The IAV panel - the Council on Casinos - compares the rise of local gambling with the spread of payday lenders and fast-food franchises.

Modern food is carefully engineered to make us crave it. If you give in to that craving too often, it will destroy your health. Modern casinos are engineered to make us crave the thrill they create. If you give in to that craving too often, it can destroy your financial and emotional health.

Unlike destination casinos, with their table games and vacation crowds, "regional casinos" depend on repeat visits by nearby habitual gamblers. The casinos depend almost wholly on slot machines - sophisticated computers manipulated to separate gamblers from their money.

People with gambling problems account for "40 to 60 percent of slot machine revenues," according to the IAV report, entitled "Why Casinos Matter." Casual players - which the casinos claim to target - produce a paltry 4 percent of revenue, according to a Canadian study. Indeed, according to the IAV report, people within 10 miles of a casino are twice as likely to have a gambling problem.

The nonprofit Institute for American Values aims "to renew civil society." It brings together all kinds of thinkers from all kinds of perspectives to consider big issues affecting America. Its focus at the moment is on bolstering the institution of marriage, invigorating thrift and strengthening shared values.

For the report, the Council on Casinos reviewed a number of studies, many of them done abroad.

Reliable data on gambling in America has long been difficult to find. There is little research financed by anyone other than the industry, and the rise of regional casinos is a relatively new phenomenon.

The IAV's report - while also urging more and better research - found that in addition to harm to gamblers, casinos do serious damage to communities, lowering property values, weakening nearby businesses and redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich.

Portsmouth already has the lowest per capita income in Hampton Roads and one of the highest poverty rates. More than 40 percent of the city's property belongs to entities that don't pay taxes. But the deleterious impact of gaming extends far beyond any city's borders.

Gambling puts a state in the hypocritical position of needing the revenue while having the responsibility to protect citizens from exploitation. Virginia faced the same dilemma on tobacco.

Because the commonwealth's financial health depended on the industry, it was late and begrudging in taking steps to regulate cigarettes and recoup the massive social costs of smoking.

Virginia - and its lawmakers - should do everything they can to avoid a similar mistake with gambling.

Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe and lawmakers have pledged to search for a way to lower the tolls on the Midtown and Downtown tunnels. They are likely to find that task difficult given the sweetheart terms of the deal with Elizabeth River Crossings. Still, that effort should continue, even as lawmakers send Lucas' gambling proposal to oblivion.

The tolls at the Midtown and Downtown tunnels - $1.84 for passenger vehicles and $7.36 for trucks at rush hour - will affect business and settlement patterns across Hampton Roads, changing where people live and work and play. They will change this place for generations to come.

The terrible and well-understood social costs of gambling are about the only things that make those tolls look harmless.

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