Editorial: Gambling poses risks to society

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If legalizing gambling was ever to have a chance of enactment in Hawaii, this would be the year there would be at least progress made in that direction.

Gambling has been seized on during times of economic recession as a new source of state revenue — as well as during years when the economy is stronger. Few of these measures get to the hearing room, however, let alone close to passage.

But this legislative session Hawaii is beset by the drastic downturn resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, paired with another factor: a constituency in critical need of resources unlikely to materialize from the general tax coffers.

The state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands is seeking authority to build a single casino on an undetermined parcel of its own land in West Oahu, with the goal of financing the development of more homesteads for thousands of Native Hawaiian beneficiaries who have waited to receive a lease. DHHL, chronically short of funds for development, has a waiting list that now numbers about 28,000. Many have died waiting.

House Bill 359 is one version of the DHHL proposal for a casino on a mixed-use resort property that has spawned a flurry of bills exploring similar possibilities. These include measures that would examine alternative casino sites, and even a wider examination of lotteries and other forms of legalized gambling.

Hawaii has reached a point where it’s important to have an in-depth conversation on the topic, setting the basic elements on either side of the scale, weighing the potential revenue from these enterprises against the risk that some very real social ills could result.

This is likely to be a heated conversation, too: Hawaii and Utah are the only states that bar legalized gambling, and emotions run strong.

The impact of gambling pathology is well documented, and opponents to legalization say the problems range from family discord and depression to financial hardship and bankruptcy. Further, Hawaii is a largely service-based economy, with high costs and relatively low wages — not the best circumstances into which to bring a costly addiction.

Of course, gambling is already established as an entertainment among the state’s residents. The internet has put gambling opportunities within reach of Hawaii gamers; more traditionally, however, islanders get their “fix” from frequent trips to Las Vegas, a favorite stopping-off point.

This year’s DHHL casino proposal was allowed to move forward to state Capitol debate by the agency’s governing Hawaiian Homes Commission, even though it also has drawn opposition from some of the beneficiaries.

Additionally, Gov. David Ige said in an interview on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight Hawaii webcast that the project’s benefits “would not exceed the social costs of gambling … it does not provide economic value to our community.”

Many lawmakers rightly have their doubts as well. State Sen. Jarett Keohokalole, Senate majority floor leader and vice chairman of the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee, introduced one of the measures on DHHL’s behalf. But he said his main interest is in resolving the agency’s wait-list problem, adding that he needs some convincing that this is the right path.

So should we all. To begin with, lawmakers will need to get at the cost-benefit ratio of gambling, as the governor suggests — an examination that almost certainly will extend beyond the current session.

They would need to establish the likelihood that a casino would be successful at all, especially if it’s run with an eye toward minimizing the local social impacts. How would a casino be managed to make money without becoming a magnet for residents who easily could be drawn into spending more than they have?

DHHL is not alone in having the idea. There is another measure aimed at authorizing a casino in Waikiki, with the requirement that access would be limited to hotel guests who pay an additional fee.

And there are multiple bills resurrecting the idea of creating a lottery. State lotteries elsewhere typically have been established as revenue-producers for specific public needs, such as education.

All of these ideas do deserve a careful review this session, which is why something like HB 457 may stand the best chance of passage. The bill would establish a task force within the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism to study the feasibility of “authorizing controlled legalized gambling in the state,” touching on a variety of forms, including offshore cruise-type gambling.

Feasibility studies are usually the way lawmakers kick the proverbial can down the road, but in this case, a serious study is what’s needed.

There are lots of concerns that deserve to be addressed. One is whether it’s possible to keep gambling options under control, because there is a slippery slope here. Being clear on the risks and safeguards will be the only way to decide whether the potential reward will be worth taking that first precarious step.

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