Jayne: State gambling with county's well-being in casino plan

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 
photoGreg Jayne, Opinion page editor

I was sad. I was sullen. I was morose and gloomy and glum. Why, you might even say I was saturnine — if you happened to have a thesaurus handy.

The Columbia River Crossing had met its demise, and I was at a loss. For a columnist, the CRC was the gift that kept on giving … and then it was gone. Now what was there to rail against (rail against — get it?).

But then, lo and behold, the proposed Cowlitz Tribe casino near La Center reappeared. It was like a gift from the heavens. The casino, you see, ranks behind only the CRC and the Clark County commissioners in its ability to grab the attention of readers, and it might stand alone in its power to permanently alter this community. Therefore, it was news when the Cowlitz Tribe and the state gaming commission recently agreed on some of the details for the facility.

The tribe could build two casinos, one with as many as 75 gaming tables and one with as many as 50. There could be a total of 3,000 “tribal lottery player stations,” which are slot machines in all but name. And there would be a certain percentage of the gross revenues going toward community mitigation (law enforcement, emergency services, etc.) and addiction services.

None of this is set in stone. The proposal remains, for now, locked up in federal court. And yet it highlights one of the most disturbing trends in American society over the past 30 years. As columnist George Will once noted, “Gambling has swiftly transformed from social disease into social policy.” And, as a French proverb says, “Gambling is the son of avarice and the father of despair.”

You see, once upon a time, the American Dream was that you get a good education, you work hard, and you build a life for you and your family. Now, the dream is that you buy a lottery ticket and strike it rich. Hard work has been replaced by luck in the American ethos, and we all are poorer for it.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against gambling in general. Put me in the vicinity of a blackjack table and I’m like a teenager with a video game. But that doesn’t mean it makes for wise social policy. That doesn’t mean putting a large casino in Clark County would be beneficial for the area.

While states once worked to promote the general welfare, now they prey upon general weakness. It is easy to view the addiction of compulsive gamblers as an illness of their own making, a weakness of character and fortitude. Coming from individuals, such attitudes are lamentable; coming from governments, they are inexcusable.

No shared commitment

In 2012, Washington’s Lottery generated $529.2 million in revenue, with 58.8 percent of that going back to players as prizes. That means about $218 million was distributed to the Washington Opportunity Pathways Account, lottery retailers, etc.

Washingtonians gladly donated that to the state, and they derived a little entertainment value in the process. But here’s the question: What would be the reaction if the state suddenly decided to raise taxes by $218 million? Think that would go over well?

Once upon a time, taxes were viewed as a collective effort to better communities. Now, they are anathema, yet people willingly donate hundreds of millions through the lottery. Sure, that is the choice of those who play, but the process has eroded our sense of shared commitment.

And yet, I digress. Let’s talk about the Cowlitz casino. Let’s talk about the fact that the tribe’s claim of historical ties to the La Center site is not even remotely plausible. The tribe wants to be as close to the Vancouver-Portland market as possible and has fabricated a story about links to the region. It’s a smart sales strategy on their part, but state officials would be foolish to buy it.

State officials would be foolish to buy any of it. The scope of the proposed casino would negatively impact Clark County in ways that would greatly overshadow any benefits — among them the increase in traffic from Portland. On the other hand, at least then we could talk about the CRC again.