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OUR VIEW: Less wasted gambling money is not a bad thing

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opinion Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

Congratulations, South Dakotans. You're wasting less money on gambling.

That's bad news to some observers, since a big chunk of the money that South Dakotans lose while gambling goes to state government. Through June 14, the state's total take this year from video lottery, scratch tickets and lotto tickets was about $105.7 million. That's nearly $2 million less than the state collected through June 14 of last year.

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Those numbers caused heartburn last week among members of the state's Lottery Commission, who according to a report in this newspaper "spent many hours in the past year building a strategic plan to revive revenue." The plan includes new lotto games and promotions.

We're not railing against legalized gambling. That debate was settled long ago, and trying to outlaw gambling in South Dakota in all its forms -- Deadwood casinos, Indian casinos, video lottery, scratch tickets, Powerball, etc. -- would be like trying to stuff a dollar bill into a nickel slot hole. Besides that, we're OK with responsible adults gambling for recreation now and then.

We're uncomfortable, though, with the growing degree to which our state government has become dependent on gambling over the years. State lottery officials have felt compelled to promote gambling to South Dakotans to keep the revenue flowing, and that's awkward, to say the least. We don't, for example, see any government officials encouraging alcohol consumption to keep alcohol tax revenues high, or encouraging smoking to keep cigarette tax revenue flowing. Government-backed promotion of either activity would be roundly criticized, given the social consequences of addiction. Yet we seem to condone state government's aggressive promotion of gambling, apparently only because it's so lucrative.

We've heard people call gambling an "idiot tax," and it's easy and tempting to think of it that way. After all, the more money state government gets from people who gamble, the fewer taxes the rest of us non-gamblers have to pay. But a government funding structure built on the backs of the vulnerable is a shaky proposition at best, and downright immoral at worst.

Again, we're not calling for the abolition of legalized gambling. We're only saying that when gambling revenue dips, it's not all bad news. Granted, it does mean the portion of state government funding that is derived from gambling will take a hit, but it also could mean that people are making wiser choices with their money. Rather than gambling, they might be buying goods and services that are sales-taxable, in which case the state still gets a share.

If state government officials could look at it that way, maybe we could have a productive debate about better, fairer, more sustainable ways to replace the revenue lost to downturns in the gambling industry, rather than crass ploys to encourage more gambling.

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