THE RESOUNDING DEFEAT of the gambling initiative in seven of the city's eight wards Tuesday said very little about how District residents feel about gambling. All the negative vote said was that the voters did not like the contents of the initiative on the ballot. It was badly written, leaving the city open to the risk of corruption without rewarding the city's depleted treasury with added revenues. The initiative was also unattractive in that it was a take-it-or-leave-it package. District voters had the choice of approving of jai alai, dog racing, bingo, private betting and lotteries, all together, or being left with nothing at all. The negative vote on such an ill-conceived initiative does not say that gambling can never win support in the District. Instead, it opens the question of what form of gambling could gain the approval of the city's voters.
One form of gambling that seems less danger-fraught is a lottery. Unlike jai alai's unsavory history of game-fixing in this country, for example, modern lotteries in the United States have been run with little, if any, corruption. Maryland offers an example of a well-run lottery, as do Pennsylvania and New York. The lottery could bring the city some needed revenue. As was advertised by supporters of the defeated initiative, District residents spend about $30 million annually to play the Maryland lottery. According to a report on gambling taxation in the District for the D.C. Tax Revision Commission, a legal numbers game in the District "promises revenues of nearly $13 million per year, of which 34 percent would be furnished by residents of the District." The same report says that the "most promising revenue source for the District of Columbia is off-track betting, which would yield about $47 million per year in tax receipts." The report notes that a state-run off-track betting operation would be the least repressive form of gambling, because persons who bet at OTB tend to be those who can afford it.
Each new initiative to bring gambling to the city should be limited to one form of gambling so voters will be able to decide what kind they would like to see here. And each gambling game should be examined on its own to determine if it is safe and acceptable as a government-approved activity. Such complex questions cannot be decided across the board for one package that includes any and every type of gambling.
A second part of the next question will be deciding where revenues generated by gambling are to go.The initiative defeated Tuesday would have had its revenues go to an independent gambling board that would have divided the money among charities and unfunded government programs. In these hard financial times for the District government, it is a better idea to place the money in the city treasury, where its best use can be determined by elected officials as part of the city's total budget.
An initiative to present another variation on gambling to the voters could conceivably be on the ballot as soon as next November's general election. The city council can also take up the issue at any time. However it is done, the gambling question should not be considered closed now. Gambling -- in certain forms -- can be a legitimate source of revenue for the city. But it deserves and requires a better proposal than the recklessly dangerous one that was on the ballot Tuesday.