North Carolina elected leaders have enacted several ineffective and misleading laws over the years, but when it comes to undermining public confidence in government and taking advantage of vulnerable people, the badly misnamed “education lottery” has to be near the bottom of any “worst of” list.
The lottery — which became law in 2005 after surviving some close and sketchy votes in the General Assembly — was sold to lawmakers and the public as harmless entertainment that would provide a magical boon to the state’s public schools. Indeed, lottery ads still promote this fiction.
But it never was such a thing.
Not only have thousands of North Carolinians of modest means thrown away huge sums on losing bets, but per-pupil education funding has also steadily declined as lawmakers quickly learned how to redirect dollars that the regressive lottery tax was supposed to supplement rather than supplant.
Meanwhile, the incessant and ubiquitous lottery ads — the frequently charming con that urges people to throw away their money on the microscopic chance of winning big prizes — have become the most visible means by which state government communicates with its citizenry.
No wonder faith in government has declined.
Now, sadly, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers wants to double down on this losing bet with an even more dangerous and exploitive proposal: legalized sports betting.
Under a bill introduced in the state House this week, North Carolina would plunge head-first into murky and toxic waters by transforming millions of cellphones, tablets, laptops and PCs into 24-hour-a-day casinos.
As with the lottery, this push is being driven by the multi-billion-dollar gambling industry and neatly packaged for lawmakers by a fleet of handsomely paid lobbyists as wholesome fun that will provide a windfall in tax revenues for state coffers.
This is baloney.
As a powerful series of special reports in The New York Times documented last November, the massive and ongoing national advertising and political blitz that Americans have experienced in recent years to legalize and normalize sports gambling is anything but a wholesome and beneficent win-win for states. Rather, it is “a relentless nationwide campaign to bring sports betting to tens of millions of mobile phones, in what has been the fastest expansion of legalized gambling in American history.”
As the series explained: The “dazzling projections” for state tax revenues pitched by industry lobbyists to legislators around the country have been wildly inflated.
Though touted as serious and significant, the consumer protection provisions and appropriations dedicated to combating compulsive gambling in various pieces of state legislation have been paltry and inadequate.
Gambling interests have now infiltrated numerous college sports programs in state universities and are thereby directly or indirectly marketing to, and ensnaring, hundreds of thousands of underage students in their respective states’ care.
One of the leading figures driving the national pro-gambling charge is a controversial “self-described ‘degenerate gambler’” with “a history of misogynistic and racist behavior.”
Gambling’s rapid online growth is threatening a beneficial financial lifeline for Native American tribes.
In states where it’s legal, the industry has been “showering state lawmakers with money, gifts and visits from sports luminaries.”
In other words, sports fans might find themselves entertained and amused when iconic sports families like the Mannings of football cut humorous ads for casino giant Caesars. And politicians could find themselves taking the promises of industry lobbyists to fund all manner of public goods seriously.
But the hard truth is that the come-on is — like the age-old phenomenon of gambling itself — a scam and a losing proposition for almost everyone who falls for it. Ultimately, the ongoing national gambling push is about nothing other than fattening the bottom lines of several giant and often predatory corporations.
Does this mean that gambling should somehow be made unlawful? Of course not.
Just as student prayer in schools will be around so long as there are important tests, gambling in America isn’t going anywhere. As those filling out NCAA basketball brackets this week can readily attest, it’s eminently possible for sports gambling to take place in a relatively safe, low-stakes context.
But just as there’s a big difference between private instances of meditation and state-prescribed and state-initiated prayer in school, there’s a yawning gap between an office or neighborhood tournament pool (or even a handful of regulated brick-and-mortar establishments) and universal, 24/7 digital casinos at everyone’s fingertips.
Prohibition of drugs like alcohol and marijuana has always been a proven failure, but that doesn’t mean society should start dispensing those products from public vending machines, either.
And so it is with gambling.
For well over a century, both American government and sports have done just fine while keeping powerful gambling interests at arm’s length.