Opinion: Minnesota gambling with safety of residents

Published 11:08 am Friday, December 14, 2012

The State of Minnesota has a problem. OK, it actually has lots of problems, but the most recent one is this: People just aren’t gambling away enough of their money.

The solution? More gambling.

Confronted with a shortfall in its take from charitable gambling, the state is apparently going to welcome video gambling devices for the Minneapolis airport. There’s even been talk of putting video gaming devices into grocery stores. If this happens, it will be a real step forward for anyone who wants Minnesota to be just like delightful Nevada, where no flat surface is without some kind of gambling device.

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Minnesota’s latest anything-for-a-buck move is being driven by last winter’s decision to funnel gambling proceeds into a fund for construction of a new football stadium. The gambling-for-football plan keeps the stadium project off the general tax rolls — as long as the state gets its multi-million-dollar cut ever year.

Unfortunately, Minnesotans just aren’t cooperating. The scheme — and there is no better word for the idea than “scheme” — requires the installation of fancy new video-gaming devices in taverns (and, now, other places) throughout the state. Some of the resulting proceeds go to charitable causes, the rest to the for-profit Vikings football team via the state.

To date, though, revenue from the new devices is about half of what Gov. Mark Dayton and other state leaders hoped for and needed. When that news became public, the governor suggested there was no need to worry, presumably because he expects gambling revenues to eventually grow.

For those who don’t want to pay for a football stadium, this would seem to be a good thing. Anyone who wants to pay for a stadium can chip in via electronic gambling; those who don’t want to pay can just skip the whole deal.

Except for those who have a problem with gambling and increasingly will be walking right by electronic gambling games. Therein lies the situation’s real irony: A governor and state government that are ostensibly concerned about Minnesotans’ welfare are also actively encouraging residents to do something fairly stupid: Get hooked on gambling.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services is involved in efforts to help people identify and, presumably, recover from problem gambling. One of the brochures on the Department of Human Services’ web site includes these notes about problem gambling:

n Young adults are by far the most likely to become problem gamblers.

n People who have gambling problems may have side-effects that include divorce, alcohol and drug addictions, severe financial problems and a high incidence of suicide.

n There are few outward signs of gambling addiction — until significant problems develop.

n Approximately 3 million adults meet the criteria of having a gambling problem.

Given its obvious hazards, why do Minnesota’s leaders encourage gambling? Because like so many organizations, the state cannot leave well enough alone. Unable to build a new football stadium with existing revenues, the governor and lawmakers looked around and found another way to extract money from residents, apparently with little thought for the fact that some Minnesotans get really messed up by gambling.

They didn’t have to choose gambling as a fund-raising source. Their alternative would have been to simply say, “We don’t have the money.” But that is not something that many politicians are able to say — at least not to the NFL.

Now, with fewer Minnesotans willing to dive into gambling than expected — only 80-some bars have installed the fancy new video machines — the state seems poised to work harder to get people gambling by putting machines in more and more locations.

There are certainly cases when the government has to sacrifice individuals’ well-being for the greater good. Real crises, such as war, demand sacrifices. The question is whether urging Minnesotans to damage themselves just to make a buck for pro sports makes much sense. Most would say no.