LEGALIZED GAMBLING is an appropriate way to raise money for a city, and the District government is in need of money.But the initiative to legalize gambling on the District ballot next Tuesday is so sloppy, inept and dangerous in the way it proposes to bring gambling here that no District resident should support it. To vote yes is to accept an invitation to corruption that delivers millions of dollars to an all-powerful gambling board instead of to the city's needy treasury.
The gambling initiative would legalize lotteries, raffles and bingo games for charities and churches, private gambling in homes, and dog racing and jai alai. The public lotteries, dog racing and jai alai would be overseen by a gaming control board. The mayor and city council would have no authority to intervene in the gambling board's operation. Neither would the mayor or council be able even to set priorities for the use of the money generated by legal gambling, estimates of which range from $20 million to $35 million. The mayor and council would only be able to veto the board's final proposal for dividing the profits among charities, special education programs and unfunded government projects. Under the initiative, none of the gambling board's profits could go directly to the financially depleted city treasury. At best, gambling would offer very little relief for either the city's shortage of money or the taxpayers who will have to make it up.
There is more -- and worse: as proposed in the initiative, lotteries would be the only form of gambling operated by the city's gaming control board. Jai alai and dog racing would be privately operated with licenses from the board and under board regulations that are not yet written.
This is a rotten format for bringing legalized gambling to the District. An appointed gaming control board that does not answer to voters or to elected officials -- while handling millions of dollars -- is nothing more than a scandal waiting to happen. Another is lurking in the unwritten rules and regulations for jai alai and dog racing. Those guidelines will be established without any review from the city council, mayor or voters. Lobbyists for investment groups, interested in placing a dog track or jai alai fronton here, are likely to be the primary outside influence on the inexperienced gaming board as they promulgate regulations. Already jai alai backers have given about $34,000 nearly half of the campaign treasury of the group seeking to bring legalized gambling to the city, to keep the pro-gambling effort strong.
This intense interest from jai alai backers may be pure as the driven snow. But it is worth at least a little concern since some organizers of jai alai games across the nation do not have a good record. The sport is under investigation in two of the four states where it is played. In Connecticut, bettors and players have pleaded guilty to charges of fixing games. The president of one group interested in bringing jai alai to the District was fined $70,000 in Connecticut for failing to inform authorities of allegations of game fixing.
Some proponents of the initiative to bring legal gambling to the city contend that inadequacies in their written proposal are insufficient grounds for a no vote on Tuesday. They say that after the initiative is approved by voters, the city council could amend parts of the law where problems exist. For a voter to follow that course of action would be about as effective as making a wish. There is no assurance that the initiative will be changed after it is approved and every reason to suppose that efforts at change would bog down in familiar politics-as-usual. In addition, the defeat of this particular initiative would not mean that legal gambling could never again be put before District voters. Far from it. A better written gambling initiative -- the right one -- could be introduced in any future election.
Late last year, we said in this space that the initiative seemed to us to offer the city a "not unhealthy" gambling option because it did not include casinos or wagering on professional or college sports. We were hasty and wrong. On a closer review, we see that the initiative does not begin to be sufficiently limited and that the setup it envisions is all wrong, and dangerously so. The right initiative would offer voters a chance to select which forms of gamgling -- lotteries, racing, casinos -- they would like to see here. And it would include the regulations for operation of those games. The initiative on the ballot is too far from any of this to be redeemed. It will not even produce the revenue people have in mind. It should not be approved. Vote no on Tuesday.