Bad odds

The urge to begin with a series of trite and predictable metaphors is almost overwhelming. “Legislators gamble with state budget,” “Oregonians addicted to lottery funds,” “Big payouts equal big risks for Oregonians,” etcetera. But no matter how you wrap it, the sad truth remains that the state’s reliance on the empty and dangerous addictive gambling habits of Oregonians is the only thing keeping us afloat. And that’s fucked.

According to a report in Sunday’s Oregonian, budget predictions for the new quarter put the state’s lottery revenue $69 million over anticipated amounts – topping at close to $1 billion. According to the report, that’s $1 of every $13 the state has to spend. That’s $1 billion that Oregonians are pumping into scratch off’s, video poker and slot machine-style games. One billion dollars spent a bill at a time with the meager hope that maybe “this time it’ll hit.” And when it doesn’t, which generally it won’t, then it becomes that much more important for the next dollar to hit. And so on and so forth. According to a report by the Oregon Office of Mental Health and Addiction Services, in 2003 there were an estimated 35,800 problem gamblers in Oregon, the total of their spending at about $361 million. Add three years and slot machine-style games and suddenly 2006 seems exponentially worse.

I’m all for vice taxes on cigarettes, booze, even gas. People should be responsible with their recreation and using vice taxes to help fund necessary social programs makes delicious sense. Every drag I take, every mile I drive and each beer back I finish off, I am satisfied knowing that I, through my gluttonous self-destruction, am helping keep Oregon great. I think a lottery system makes sense, but having grown up in Nevada, where gambling is universally legal, I became intimately aware of the ugly side of addiction. Slot machines line the walls of convenience stores and the fronts of supermarkets. All day long, locals, retirees and the unemployed, not tourists, pump what little they have into slot machines, generally with no return. Sure it keeps the state running, but at what cost to its citizens.

In Oregon, with a budget consistently coming up short, that $1 billion is mighty important, perhaps too much so. In Sunday’s Oregonian, David Leslie, executive director of the Ecumenical Council of Oregon, conveyed his worry over our dependence on gambling income, saying, “The consequence of that is we have effectively tabled any discussion in recent years on tax reform or other sources of revenue to fund basic state services.”

In a state where the class divide keeps growing and the budget needs for the lower classes keeps shrinking, it’s troubling to think that addicted gamblers would be encouraged to continue to throw what little money they have into games with little chance of payout. Due to the state’s budget shortfalls the range of the Oregon Health Plan’s coverage keeps shrinking, leaving thousands of Oregonians, including children, with no coverage. In Portland, Tom Potter’s recent education tax didn’t even make it to the polls before getting squashed, leaving schools with a $57 million hole next year and no plan.

If the voters aren’t willing to up our tax payment, then of course the lottery seems like the most viable choice. An informal survey of video poker players I took recently at a local downtown bar revealed that four out of five of the gamblers opposed Potter’s proposed tax increase. One player, Tim, who requested his last name not be used, queried, “Why would I want to pay more in taxes when I’m not getting anything from the ones I’m paying now? I don’t have kids.” When I asked him if he received OHP benefits he said he did three years ago but was denied when he reapplied. He then turned and slid another $5 into the video machine.

Voters can’t see the connection between taxes and needed services, and our leaders can’t show them. People would rather take big risks, pitting their money against the vague possibility of getting a big return, than pay and receive evenly. Perhaps it’s the stigma of taxation, of the government taking your hard-earned money, that voters can’t wrap their minds around; it seems somehow like less of a sacrifice to give it up via electronic crack than to see it leave our paychecks. And for the state government it’s easier to keep leaching off people’s addictions than to attempt to persuade them otherwise. Portland and Portlanders brag daily about our culture, the vitality and sustainability of our city, but if no one stands up and confronts the issue – that we need to change direction to keep it running – soon the only things living here will be our green roofs and sustainable gardens.