A citizens commission to study the feasibility of legalized gambling in the District of Columbia has decided to recommend creation of a daily government-run numbers game.
The commission, established nearly a year ago by the City Council and headed by Brant Coopersmith, Washington director of the American Jewish Committee, also has decided to urge legalization of charitable gambling - such as church raffles and bingo - still technically unlawful here, although largely overlooked by police.
Both proposals would mean rewriting the D.C. criminal code, according to Coopersmith, and that in turn would require congressional approval.
Another obstacle to quick enactment of a lottery is the vehement opposition of many local Protestant, particularly Baptist, groups. A "Committee of One Hundred," led by the Rev. Andrew Fowler, pastor of the Capitol View Baptist Church at Division Avenue and Ames Street NE. argues that gambling for revenue purposes as a regressive tax falling most heavily on the poor.
Much of the testimony in support of a D.C. lottery has come from small businessmen located close to the Maryland line. Maryland lottery tickets are sold in liquor stores and groceries, and the lottery is helping these stores draw customers away from D.C. competitors, according to several witnesses who appeared before the commission.
Maryland offers both a weekly and a daily lottery, and in the daily version the buyer can choose his own three-digit number. The daily lottery was added in August 1976, resulting in a sharp increase in profits, which have since averaged more than $1 million a week. Maryland's daily lottery has put "tremendous pressure on our businesses," said Jerry Cooper, another D.C. gambling commission member. "That is what we are most concerned about."
The commission has not arrived at any estimate of how much money the D.C. government might realize from a lottery. "We have figures running from $8 million to $30 million dollars" a year, said Coopersmith. "There is one thing we are certain of - there is substantial revenue . . . and it's the only way that we know to get some money from people passing through this town."
The commission leans toward a pari-mutuel system like that used by New Jersey, where winnings vary with each day's level of betting, rather than a fixed payout as in Maryland. That way, a lottery more closely resembles the illegal numbers game with which it is in competition, said Coopersmith.
The commission also intends to propose creation of a D.C. gaming authority - probably a five-member body named by the mayor with the approval of the City Council. Besides the power of oversee legalized numbers and charity betting, this authority might be asked to look into the advisability of other forms of gambling, including horse-racing, said Coopersmith.
While one outside expert has projected annual earnings as high as $47 million from an off-track betting network modeled on New York State's, commission members are skeptical. Such a system needs track cooperation - to bring changing odds to the betting parlors - and the Maryland tracks, the closest to Washington, have consistently opposed off-track betting, fearful of lost patronage.
"Supposing we could make a deal with the New York tracks," said Coopersmith. "Would our people want to bet them? I have no idea."
In any event, "numbers is a part of the life of this city," he said. Off-track betting or the construction of horse tracks, dog tracks, or jai-alai frontons "would bring an element into the life new."
"We would guarantee an honest game, a fair payout, and make money for the District of Columbia at the same time," he said.
The commission decided not to urge legalization of a wider range of "social gambling," but Coopersmith described it as routine police practice in Washington to ignore gambling when the "three C's" are not present, "if the game is not commercial - not for profit - not conspicuous, and there is no complaint."
One reason why the commission decided against support of other forms of legalized betting was its desire to take a "basically conservative approach," said Coopersmith. The City Council will have enough trouble with the lottery proposal, he said, while noting that the question could wind up before voters as a referendum item in next year's election.
"Politics being what it is, that may very well be the route the Council will choose to take," said Coopersmith.
One commission member, the Rev. John D. Bussey, pastor of Bethesda Baptist Church at 1808 Capitol Ave. Ne, denounced the recommendations. "I'm sorry I spent my time," he said.
"We lead people to believe that this (gambling) can be a way of life . . . we rob people of the work incentive," Bussey said. "It's making them reach out for something that they are never going to get. As a pastor, I have to deal with the losers."
The commission's subcommittee on religious and moral aspects, which Bussey chaired, consisted of five Catholics and four Baptists, he said. The Catholics were consistently in favor of legalization and the Baptists consistently opposed, and "5 to 4 is always going to win," he said.