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Gambling With Government

THE lure of trying to fill depleted state and local treasuries by appealing to a desire to get something for nothing may seem hard for public officials to resist. But it shouldn't be.

Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are looking to increase the variety of state-sponsored gambling they offer. Providence, R.I., is exploring the possibility of building a casino, as are Bridgeport and Hartford, Conn. The goals are twofold: to increase revenue and to protect existing gambling revenue by meeting or beating the competition posed by nearby states. (Three articles on Pages 8 and 9 in today's edition look at the efforts in Massachusetts and Connecticut, as well as at the imp act of gambling nationwide.)

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Efforts to expand gambling opportunities - even in the name of balancing budgets, paying for education or social programs, or providing an economic stimulus to hard pressed regions, is bad politics.

Gaming as a revenue vehicle essentially is a regressive tax that falls most heavily on middle- and low-income residents, groups hit hard by layoffs during a recession. Gaming's track record in funding social programs or stimulating local economies is mixed at best. And because it doesn't look like a tax increase, it allows lawmakers to dodge the difficult choices of overtly raising taxes or cutting programs to keep budgets balanced. Reliance on gambling revenues can itself prove addicting, as states comp ete with one another to increase the revenue they already get or try to attract more.

The social costs of gambling may also grow as opportunities to gamble increase. Howard Shaffer, director of Harvard Medical School's Center for Addiction Studies, has estimated that in Massachusetts, up to 5 percent of the people have trouble ridding themselves of gambling once when they are exposed to it. And many, he adds, are being exposed to it at younger ages.

In many states, state-run gambling is well entrenched. That is an insufficient reason, however, to expand its reach.

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