Both sides of the Maryland gambling referendum have spent millions trying to convince voters to support their point of view on Question 7. The record spending has avoided a crucial bit of information that voters should consider when deciding on the issue.
African Americans are more at risk to become problem gamblers and are more likely to be what researchers and health experts call problem or pathological gamblers. The startling conclusions appear in study after study on gambling issues, including a report released in May 2011, “Gambling in Maryland: A Baseline Analysis.”
The less money you make as an African American, the higher the odds that you could become a problem gambler. Drink too much alcohol? Smoke weed? Snort cocaine? The odds increase even more.
“There is substantial research showing that some ethnic and racial minorities — and particularly African Americans in the United States — are more likely to score as problem/pathological gamblers than members of other ethnic/racial groups,” said Rachel Volberg, president of Gemini Research in Massachusetts who worked on the report with researchers at the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis & Research.
The pro-Question 7 side focuses mostly on education to sell its point of view. Pass the gambling referendum, they say, and there will be more revenue available to fund public schools.
Indeed, Prince George’s County public schools and school districts in Maryland need more money. My two children attend public schools in Prince George’s, and we see the needs daily in ways big and small. At my older son’s high school, students have taken classes in 20 or so “temporary” trailers for years because of overcrowding. My younger son’s elementary school class has about 30 students, too many for a Montessori program.
So would passing Question 7 solve these small everyday problems and much larger, complicated ones in Prince George’s public schools? Probably not because increasing funding for public schools would not automatically happen if the referendum passes. Why? Because while a portion of gambling revenue will be committed to the state's Education Trust Fund, there is no iron clad guarantee in the law that ensures that it won’t simply replace other monies already earmarked for schools.
The amount the state must come up with every year for the fund is set. What's not set is where the money comes from. So, yes, gambling will be going to education, but not necessarily increasing the amount spent on education.
Maryland Delegates Jolene Ivey and Doyle Niemann, both Democrats, talked about their respective positions on the referendum at a recent political forum in Prince George’s County.
“I voted against the 2007 bill that brought casino-style slot machines to Maryland,” said Ivey, who was elected this month to lead the Prince George’s delegation to the state legislature. “However, I lost that vote.”
Since that bill passed, Ivey said, Anne Arundel County has benefited financially from having a venue with casino-style slots. “It’s here, and we in Prince George’s get nothing from it. Twenty percent of state lottery money comes from Prince George’s County, but Prince George’s does not get 20 percent of state lottery money back. We have not been getting our share.”
Another reason the referendum has her support — jobs. “People are looking for work,” she said. “This development would bring a wide variety of jobs to the county.”
Niemann, who says his father was “a borderline gambling addict,” opposes Question 7.
“It’s really only a glorified sin tax that is not progressive,” he said. “The (casino) operators project that most of their revenue would come from Maryland gamblers. How much of that would come from people who think the solution to their next problem is the next hit.”
Which brings me back to the research study. What does it mean to be a problem or pathological gambler?
Volberg, an internationally recognized expert on the study of problem gambling, says that the most accepted problem gambler definition, which she does not claim as her own, is a person who has difficulty limiting the amount of money or time spent gambling to the extent that it leads to adverse consequences.
A pathological gambler has a more severe problem, one now recognized as a mental disorder. It is diagnosed similarly to the way someone addicted to drugs or dependent on alcohol is diagnosed.
To that, Ivey says that the law allows the state to collect from casino operators an annual fee of $425 for each table game — about $1.3 million a year — for a “Problem Gaming Fund.” The state must establish a 24-hour hotline, provide counseling for problem gamblers and establish intervention programs. That provision is not subject to the referendum.
“We already have slots in Anne Arundel County. The location of the facility at National Harbor would make it hard for poor people to get too,” Ivey said. “There is no public transportation there.”
The 2011 Maryland gambling study has more information for voters to consider. Ten states — including Maryland — use the same methods of measuring the prevalence of problem and pathological gambling. Among those 10, only California and Nevada have a higher prevalence of those ills associated with gambling than Maryland.
Volberg says that the issues around problem and pathological gambling are complex and do not always translate easily into black and white. I give her that.
But I also know this. Our community carries more than its share of pathology. We do not need to introduce any more.
My vote on Question 7 will be no.
Keith Harriston teaches journalism at Howard University, where he also edits www.hunewsservice.com.
More from The Root DC