- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 5, 2008

COMMENTARY:

In this corner are the gambling interests spending $10 million to convince Marylanders to approve a constitutional amendment to allow the opening of 15,000 slot machines in five locations. In the opposite corner is Stop Slots Maryland that has raised $30,000 to defeat predatory gambling.

Ah, but Stop Slots also has the support of the Catholic, Lutheran and United Methodist Churches. What are the odds in this David vs. Goliath fight?

First consider lives that are at stake. The Rev. Greg Hogan flew from Ohio to Maryland to tell the story of Greg Hogan Jr., his 19-year-old son, who had won an international piano competition and was president of his sophomore class at Lehigh. One night a student came into his room and claimed he won $120,000 by Internet gambling.

Within minutes, he posted a link on Greg’s computer. That began Greg’s gambling through the $8,000 he came to college with. He began borrowing from friends, but could never pay them back. As he told “Good Morning America,” “I felt pressure to come up with the funds.”



So he robbed a bank! “I thought if I could pay off my debts, I would stop gambling forever. However, if I had more money, my addiction would probably not have let me stop,” he confessed to a national TV audience.

Greg was asked, “Why didn’t you ask your parents for help?” His father answered, “We learned he had a gambling addiction the summer before, and got him help. He went to Gamblers Anonymous. I didn’t realize how firm a grip addiction had on my son.”

Within hours of the robbery, he was arrested as he arrived to play cello in an orchestra. He served 22 months in prison, and is out now but with a ruined life.

If slots are opened in Maryland, Greg’s story will be repeated by thousands of others who will lose their jobs, homes and marriages.

Two years ago, while Greg was in prison, Congress passed the Internet Gambling Enforcement Act to protect future Gregs. However, no regulations were issued to implement the law, so it remains toothless in prohibiting the use of credit cards to play Internet slots.

Rep. Barney Frank is a fierce opponent of the Gambling Act. In fact last week his committee passed a bill by a 30-19 vote that would not only undo the law but give the federal government a new source of revenue! Guess what will happen if Barack Obama is elected with an even stronger Democratic majority in Congress? I predict Barney’s bill will undo the Bush-signed law passed by a Republican Congress and Senate, and incompetently administered.

Les Bernal, executive director of StopPredatoryGambling.org, told the 65 people gathered for its annual convention, that slots have been made much more toxic. No longer is there the “one-armed bandit,” which takes time to pull, and the wheels to spin. Now its all electronic. Pushing a button, one can play multiple games at the same time, 600 to 1,000 in an hour vs. the old 100 per hour.

The industry calls it “playing to extinction,” breaking one player after another in short order. “Predatory gambling” is what Mr. Bernal calls it - “using gambling to prey on human weakness. There is a huge difference between social gambling and predatory gambling. There are now 800,000 slot machines in America, one for every 395 Americans,” he says.

“Do you know how they work? They are designed to get people to play longer, faster and more intensively, so they play to extinction.” None tell the player what the odds are of winning. Yet they are rigged to give the illusion of nearly winning, often showing 3 or 4 cherries pop up, though 5 are needed for the Jackpot.

In Ontario, 80 machines were pulled because regulators found they were programmed with a subliminal message, pushing people to keep gambling despite losses. The same machines are the ones the gambling industry operates across America, and which will be installed in Maryland, if voters approve them.

Voters are told the 15,000 “video lottery terminals” will generate $650 million for the state to improve education. That’s 6 miles of slots, if lined up side by side. Similar issues are on the ballot in Colorado where the vote is to keep casinos open 24 hours. Missouri is voting to shed a loss limit of $500 a day! Maine and Ohio are voting to add casinos.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline states, “Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic and spiritual life and destructive of good government.”

Who is likely to win? Polls show 49 percent favor the slots and 43 are opposed. But the margin has narrowed from a 16 percent lead. More important, since 2004, in 10 referenda in different states, all were defeated.

Michael J. McManus writes the syndicated column “Ethics & Religion,” and is president and co-founder of Marriage Savers.

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