WHEN a gambling initiative for the city was on the ballot last May, we opposed it. The bill, soundly defeated in seven of the city's eight wards, presented several invitations to corruption. There was also the chance that profits from the legalized gambling program could be diverted or misused because the money was not to be earmarked for the city treasury. Instead, under the old plan the money would have been left to a group of unelected people, the gambling commission, for distrubtion to "charities."
This Tuesday a revised and much improved version of last May's initiative is on the ballot. The main flaws of the old bill have been corrected. Dog racing and jai alai, two gambling ventures with heavy records of corruption in this country, have been removed from the plan. And all profits from legalized gambling in the city, under the new plan, would go directly to the city treasury for whatever use the mayor and council decided was best.
There have been two other important changes. First, there would be no city tax on winnings from gambling. This is meant to keep the amount of the prize money won as high as possible. The thinking is that money awards from the legal lottery must be kept high to negate the attractiveness of untaxed winnings from the street numbers game. Those legal winnings, however, are projected to amount to about $60 million a year. The city treasury, n desperate need of money, would forfeit some dollars because of the no-tax-on-lottery-winnings provision. The other change has to do with the amount of prize money to be awarded. Under the May proposal, the lottery payoff would have been 600 to 1. Those odds are better than the odds offered by the illegal street lottery in this area or even by the legal lottery run by the state of Maryland (500 to 1). In the new plan the odds are not set. The D.C. Committee for Legalized Gambling, which wrote both initiatives, says this change is intended to give proposed gambling commission greater power to attract bettors by keeping their payoff higher than the payoff in the Maryland lottery.
These ae useful changes. It is good that dog racing, jail alai and the gambling commission's unchecked power to dispense money have been delected from the new version. The gambling initiative is now sufficiently well designed to deserve support from anyone who does not have fundamental problems with the idea of the government's running a gambling operation or promoting gambling at all. There is another factor that must be considered in assessing the gambling initiative: the money it would bring to the city treasury. Estimates of income for the city from legalized gambling range from a net of $13 million to $35 million per year. According to the gambling initiative's supporters, the city should gross about $100 million per year from gambling, with $60 million of that money awarded in prizes, $30 million going to the city treasury as profits and $10 million goint to pay for the operation of the gambling commission. The value of an estimated $30 million for the city treasury at a time when the city is in a financial crisis cannot be ignored.
but even having said that the initiative has no major internal flaws and would bring needed money to the city's treasury, we have some reservations and anxieties concerning the whole project. No one can be comfortable at the prospect of the city's enticing people to gamble through ads for a city-run lottery.And ther is also the question of management and control of the gambling commission: close, unrelenting scrutiny of that opertion is a must. Would city leaders provide that close attention to the gambling commission or would they allow it to become another confused and inefficient city bureacracy?Despite these apprehensions, we are prepared to recommend the step into the unknown -- we would vote "yes" for the gambling initiative.