Columns » Bob McCord

Gambling for schools


A few days ago the Wall Street Journal said that 19 states were busy trying to bring more gambling into their states in order to raise money for their schools and colleges. The most popular plan is to get the state legislatures to pass laws allowing slot machines at racetracks and tax them. I called up Eric Jackson, who runs Oaklawn in Hot Springs, and asked him if Arkansas was among the 19. His answer was no, that Oaklawn and the dog track in West Memphis had given up trying to get permission to install slot machines. The two tracks promised the state that the slots would produce $20 million a year of new revenue for the state. But the gambling outfits in Mississippi, which has slots and casinos all over the state, spent more than $572.000 buying advertisements (and who knows what else) in Arkansas newspapers and TV stations to persuade us that slots in Hot Springs and West Memphis would send us all to Hades. Our legislators, while desperate to find money to obey the Arkansas Supreme Court's order to improve the public schools, kicked a bill around in committees for a couple of days but didn't have the courage even to bring the slots to a vote. Jackson is convinced that the owners of the casinos in Mississippi and in other adjoining states will go to any extreme to keep Arkansans coming to them rather than to West Memphis or Hot Springs. As we know, every state that borders Arkansas has a lottery, casinos, slot machines or bingo parlors, and some have them all. Thousands of Arkansans drive across the borders every day to participate in these games of chance and help improve those states' public schools. What's really ridiculous about all this is that the tracks in West Memphis and Hot Springs already have slot machines but not the kind that spit out cash when you put in a quarter, pull the handle and line up oranges and cherries just right. Arkansas laws allow the tracks to have colorful machines that reproduce actual races; you pick a horse or a dog, push a button and if your pick wins, the machine gives you a ticket that you can turn in and receive the amount of money that you would have received if you had bet the winner when the race was actually run. Needless to say, these aren't nearly as popular as the traditional one-armed bandits. Among the 19 states that are after slot machines are Maryland and Pennsylvania, both hurrying to be the first since they want to attract the thousands who cross their borders daily to gamble in New Jersey, West Virginia, Delaware, New York, etc. In February, the Oklahoma legislature became the earliest of the 19 to approve slot machines (they call them "electronic games") at its racetracks. Oklahoma City's Remington Park will have 750 of the machines, starting in August. Of course, there's been a lot of gambling in Oklahoma for years in 65 Indian-operated casinos, which prompted the lawmakers to start raking in taxes for college scholarships and the public schools. And, incidentally, the Indian tribes did not oppose it. Like everyone else, they want their kids to be well educated. It's difficult to understand why anyone in Arkansas - especially legislators, church people, etc. - would join the gamblers in our adjoining states who have selfish reasons to keep slot machines out of Arkansas. ***** As they do every two or three months, the members of the Congress took off last Friday for a two-week vacation. They might as well have since they weren't doing anything anyway. Last Thursday, the Senate turned into a stalemate - Democrats blocking the Republicans' effort to renew the 1996 welfare bill and the Republicans blocking the bill to raise the minimum wage, which has been before the Congress for two years. Some journalists think that the stalemate is likely to continue for the rest of the year, largely, I guess, because both parties want to pass only those things they think might get their presidential candidate elected. The needs of the nation are badly neglected in these long and costly political campaigns every four years. Consider the minimum wage. It is $5.15 per hour, or $10, 712 a year, which today is hardly enough money for even one person to live on. And it is nearly $2,000 a year less than the poverty threshold for an adult with one child. Congress raised the minimum wage from $4.75 to $5.15 in 1997, and there it has stayed for eight years, the second-longest time since the first minimum wage (25 cents per hour) went into effect in 1938. "The Betrayal of Work," a book by Beth Shulman, tell us who these minimum wage people are: "They are nursing home and home health care workers who care for our parents; they are poultry processors who bone and package our chicken; they are retail clerks in department stores, grocery stores and convenience stores; they are housekeepers and janitors who keep our hotel rooms and offices clean; they are billing and telephone call-center workers who take our complaints and answer our questions; and they are teaching assistants in our schools and child care workers who free us so that we can work ourselves." There's one thing I want to be sure that Arkansas's senators and representatives in Washington know. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are 34,000 Arkansans who are working for $5.15 per hour or less. Only Louisiana and Mississippi have more.

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