Iowa: Gambling Advocates Look In the Mirror


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Legalized gambling touches a nerve for most people-- even those who are willing to hold their nose and make it part of the way their state raises money. That's one explanation for a major policy shift by Iowa lawmakers this past week, where the legislature has sent Governor Tom Vilsack a bill that will ban use of the state's "TouchPlay" machines-- which sound and look remarkably like plain old slot machines.

At a time when state lawmakers are flocking to gambling revenue as an allegedly "voluntary" alternative to unpopular tax hikes, this move is a welcome, if unusual, move. But the Iowa change is doubly odd because the "Touchplay" machines were introduced less than a year ago.

Why the about face? One reason is that some members of the legislative leadership-- most notably House Speaker Christopher Rants-- are asserting that the legislature never authorized the Iowa Lottery to create as many of the "TouchPlay" machines as they did. The confusion arises from a series of legislative oversight hearings in which lawmakers asked Lottery officials to "find new revenue sources as the state faced the potential of record deficits." The "TouchPlay" machines were one of the new games dreamed up by Lottery officials in the wake of this request. It seems increasingly clear that lawmakers were informed that a new game in development would bear a close resemblance to the slot machines found in casinos, but either just didn't get the message or didn't anticipate the public outcry against the pervasiveness of the new machines. Read here for Iowa pundits' take on this debate.

The "he said, she said" element of this fight aside, the main problem here is that the Iowa Lottery is being run like, well, a business. Far from simply regulating a perennial vice that humans have engaged in millenia, Lottery officials-- and, ultimately, Iowa elected officials-- are milking Iowa residents for every cent of gambling revenue they can. What's offended the Iowa legislature appears to be the too-visible way in which they've done it. David Yepsen puts it quite well:
WHAT'S OFFENSIVE TO IOWANS I THINK IS IT'S RIGHT IN THEIR FACE. YOU KNOW, GAMBLING IS OKAY IF IT'S ON THE EDGE OF TOWN OR IN THE CASINO. A DIRTY BOOK STORE IS OKAY IF IT'S ON THE EDGE OF TOWN. WE WANT OUR BARS OFF ON THE SIDE. BUT ALL OF A SUDDEN WHEN YOU'RE IN THE GROCERY STORE, NOW AT THE LIBRARY IN SOME TOWNS, AND YOU SEE ALL THIS GAMBLING, IT REALLY DOES OFFEND PEOPLE TO HAVE THIS JUST SORT OF HITTING THEM IN THE FACE ALL THE TIME.
(This quote was published in all capital letters on the Iowa Public TV website-- caps are left in on the off chance that Yepsen was actually screaming these sentences.)

This isn't the first indication of the state's revenue-maximizing goals. From the March 3 Des Moines Register:
State regulators are urging Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino to construct a hotel and parking garage to spur more business, contending the Altoona gambling operation is underperforming in its market....'You know, we have always found as a commission that casinos tend to do a lot more business with a hotel. So we hope you keep that kind of thing in your sights,' [Racing and Gaming Commission Chairwoman Diane]Hamilton said.
At the end of the day, legalizing gaming always pits Iowa lawmakers against the best interests of their constituents.

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