THERE IS NO mystery to why some experts on gambling addiction call "video lottery terminals," or VLTs, the crack cocaine of gambling. According to one source, VLTs are the most addictive because they provide a "very fast, highly stimulating, rate of play." These contraptions are nothing more than video-based versions of slot machines. With their flashy lights and comfortable chairs, they are designed to lure players into making bets repeatedly in a matter of seconds, exposing them to "near-wins" and hooking them into a system that they can't beat. That kind of compulsive gambling could be the tragic result if D.C. businessman Pedro Alfonso and his attorney, former council member John Ray, are successful in bringing video lottery terminals to the nation's capital.
The backers of slot machine gambling are pulling out all the stops to put 3,500 terminals on a plot on New York Avenue between Bladensburg Road and Montana Avenue NE. Incredibly, wheels seemed to be greased to make that happen. Faced with certain opposition from the D.C. Council, the backers sought to put the slot machine proposal on the November ballot through an initiative. When they encountered a legal glitch getting their initiative published in a special supplement of the D.C. Register -- the city's legal bulletin -- staff members in the Office of the Secretary of the District permitted the backers to print a special supplement at Kinko's and mail it to subscribers.
When informed about the obvious irregularity, Secretary of the District Sherryl Hobbs Newman expressed surprise and said she would investigate. But she did not inform the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, which has to accept the supplement as valid, that the special supplement produced by the backers was unauthorized. Ms. Newman was in a position to erect a hurdle to slot machine gambling. Instead, she opened the gates. Leaving nothing to chance, however, the backers also got Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) to request that Ms. Newman publish their initiative. She agreed to publish that second supplement, too, thus clearing the way to move the initiative forward.
If backers gather the required signatures of about 17,500 registered voters before a July 6 deadline, the scheme will win a spot on the Nov. 2 ballot. Don't look for a citizen volunteer effort. Ann Walker Marchant, a spokeswoman for the backers, said they will hire professionals to circulate the petitions.
Citizens beware. The slot machines come cloaked with theaters and bowling alleys and restaurants. The idea, however, is to get gambling addicts to the site and to hook new gamblers. The plan is also dressed up as a generator of jobs and funds for schools and seniors. The real winners would be Mr. Alfonso and his partners, who are expected to take in $575 million along with exclusive operating rights for 10 years.
How the D.C. government would spend its 25 percent share of slots revenue is up to the politicians. But compare the District's share with those of states that allow video slots: New York gets 60 percent; Oregon, 60 percent to 85 percent; South Dakota, 50 percent; Rhode Island, 52 percent to 57.5 percent. The whole thing is unsavory and shameful. The petitions should go unsigned.