All the dark horses

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  November 20, 2007

Here’s what I like about the gambling industry: It provides suitable locations for sleazeballs and stupid people to hang out, places where they won’t interrupt me while I’m engaged in my own vices. That’s why, earlier this month, I voted for the Washington County racino. If the referendum had been successful, it would have meant one more spot for creeps and dopes to while away the hours, without disturbing those of us who prefer sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.

I think there should be similar refuges for other sorts of con artists and congenital idiots. I’d mark my ballot in favor of funding any institution that promised to confine people who insist on discussing how their fantasy football teams are doing. I’d be willing to match any government grant to underwrite a home for conspiracy theorists. (I’d even let them name it after Bill Clinton or the Rothschilds.) And Congress can raise my taxes to construct an arena for the snake-oil salespersons and the rubes, who, respectively, conceive and believe all those TV commercials promising to make them thinner, buffer, smarter, hornier, less pimply, or less stinky.

The reason I’m willing to set aside my usual antipathy toward any publicly funded effort to improve society is because the prospect of limiting our exposure to bamboozlers and bamboozlees isn’t simply a matter of ignoring common sense. It’s also an issue of fairness.

If we do it for the gambling industry, we’re obligated to do it for all other endeavors that, like Samuel Johnson’s description of second marriages, represent the triumph of hope over experience.

But wait, I can hear somebody saying the state doesn’t underwrite the gambling industry. Quite the opposite, this person claims. The racino in Bangor provides millions of dollars each year to finance public programs like the Fund for a Healthy Maine, scholarships for the community colleges and University of Maine System and cash for its host city. In 2006 alone, Hollywood Slots paid $12.4 million for those and other worthy causes.

Sorta.

According to a report produced by the anti-gambling group CasinosNo!, most of the cash collected from the Bangor gambling establishment is spent not on preventive health programs, financial aid for students of higher education or new vehicles for the Bangor Police Department. Instead, nearly $8 million went to the charitable work of subsidizing commercial race tracks and helping struggling off-track-betting parlors stay in business.

Granted, these operations provide a valuable service by keeping gamblers away from normal people. It just doesn’t seem like $8 million worth of valuable. And even if it is, there’s no way for the public to monitor how that cash is spent.

“They get the money with no questions asked and no strings attached,” said the report.

“I can’t explain it,” explained Henry Johnson, executive director of the Maine Harness Racing Commission, in the report.

I can. Back in 2003, when the law was drafted detailing how revenues from racinos would be allocated, existing gambling interests — racetracks and OTBs — warned legislators that unless they got a cut, they’d join the anti-gaming forces opposing the bill. Rather than risk a bruising political battle, our courageous elected leaders caved in, giving the tracks and off-tracks what they wanted: free money.

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