Video gaming terminals, skills games a bad bet for Erie

Erie Times-News

State lawmakers in Pennsylvania are on the verge of taking a risky gamble that is sure to be a losing bet for Erie County, particularly in economically distressed urban communities.

Some members of the Pennsylvania Legislature are pushing legislation to dramatically increase the number of video gaming terminals, or VGTs, in the state while legalizing so-called “skills games.” These are nothing more that slot machines by a different name and this legislation would open the floodgates to an additional 85,000 of them in pizza parlors, gas stations, corner stores and bars in cities and towns across the state, including right here in Erie.

This is the type of reckless gambling expansion that historically hurts poor and largely minority communities. Currently, skills games are illegal in our state and VGTs are restricted to truck stops that meet certain requirements.

Erie County already has legal gambling at Presque Isle Downs Casino. Regardless of your view on gambling, it’s important to know that activities at the casino are highly regulated — something that is all but impossible with VGTs and skills games. Further, the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority administers funding from the county’s share of state gaming revenue to a range of community organizations.

Currently, more than $55 million in Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority impact investments and grants are at work across Erie County. There isn’t a corner of the county that isn’t touched by ECGRA grant money — improving Erie’s economic and community development forecast through investments in community projects and events, educational programming for children and human services funding.

The push for these new machines threatens to deliver a double-whammy — preying on those who can least afford to lose while also likely reducing casino revenues, which would result in declining dollars to fund community initiatives that improve quality of life for all Erie County residents.

Further, the timing couldn’t be worse. Erie’s most challenged neighborhoods are suffering from long-standing poverty only made more acute by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet, conversely, for the first time in memory these neighborhoods stand to make real progress toward economic equity. Erie has been a national leader in developing Opportunity Zones that are proving to be a catalyst for economic revival throughout the city of Erie by attracting investors and supporting local entrepreneurs and community enhancement groups.

Additionally, the recent state approval of Erie County Community College — the first in Pennsylvania in 27 years — will soon offer hope and a path to a better future for scores of residents throughout the county for whom quality post-secondary education has long been out of reach.

VGTs specifically pose a serious threat to that potential progress, creating a steady and accessible temptation for vulnerable citizens to gamble money they can ill-afford to lose while saddling our community with new unfunded regulatory and social costs.

There is no doubt that VGTs are predatory against low-income and minority communities. There is significant statistical evidence that shows just how exploitative these companies are and how they target marginalized communities.

Case in point: Illinois where in 2013 gambling was expanded to include 30,000 VGTs throughout the state. It’s been a disaster.

A joint effort between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Sun-Times found that VGTs were concentrated in low income minority communities. For instance, the study found gambling machines are found in Berwyn, Illinois, which has a population made up of about 70% Black and Hispanic residents. But there are no machines in Oak Park, Illinois, which has a population that is roughly 68% white.

Meanwhile, there are video gaming terminals in Harvey, Illinois, where the population of black residents is over 75%. But there are no machines in Palos Park, Illinois, — almost 93% white.

The same story repeats throughout Illinois. No doubt the companies that manufacture these machines are aware of these troubling statistics. Yet, they continue to seek out lawmakers who willingly ignore the risks in hopes of a quick — but surely fleeting — cash grab.

That’s what is about to unfold in Pennsylvania if something isn’t done to stop it. And once these machines proliferate, there is little that can be done to shut them down. VGTs are terrible for minority neighborhoods. Yet beyond that, they are clearly bad for every citizen of Erie County who stands to pay a price through dwindling gaming revenues and anticipated social costs.

It’s a gamble none of us can afford to take.

The Rev. Dr. Charles Mock is pastor of Community Missionary Baptist Church and serves on the Board of Trustees for the Erie County Community College.

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