March is National Problem Gambling Awareness Month. So, let’s talk about gambling in Wisconsin. A 1996 survey revealed that less than 1% of Wisconsin citizens, or about 32,425 residents were problem gamblers and that the social costs related to those problem gamblers was over $300 million, or $9,469 per problem gambler in general and over $10,000 per casino problem gambler. Those numbers clearly should have told us something. But they didn’t. We haven't learned from our history.
And now, in 2022, Wisconsin has approximately 7% of its adult population, or over 333,000 people, identified as problem gamblers, which means, even using the same now very-old 1996 per-gambler cost, Wisconsin society now pays over $3 billion in social costs related to the dysfunctional consequences of problem gambling. Once again, those numbers should clearly tell us something.
So what are some of the drivers in this drastic increase in the number of problem gamblers in The Badger State? Certainly, the lottery and its unconstitutional, ubiquitous, but engaging advertising with especially hard pushes in zip codes where high percentages of the population are in poverty, is one driver. And another is undoubtedly more casinos and now sports betting at casinos.
In 1991 and 1992, just 4 years before the referenced survey, then-governor Tommy Thompson signed 11 tribal compacts and with that signing Indian gaming casinos began operating in Wisconsin. In those days, the number of games was pretty well restricted, as were the hours of operation; and compacts were reviewed, renegotiated, and re-signed on a regular basis, generally every 5-7 years.
However, that all changed in 2003, when then-Governor Jim Doyle decided to dramatically increase the number of games casinos could offer, expanded the hours of operation, and arranged that the compacts never again had to be renegotiated. As of 2016, which appears to be the most recent data, 11 tribes operate 24 casinos, with 15,402 gaming devices and 294 gaming tables. The tribes’ net revenue, not gross, since 1992 is over $21 billion.
The bottom line on the compacts that govern the state’s relationship with the tribes and their casinos is that the governor has pretty much sole discretion in any new deals with the tribes. Recently, the governor has negotiated with three of the tribes to start sports betting on casino property—which basically means we now have online sports betting. Because the unwritten agreement is that what one tribe gets, they all get, it won’t be long before the other eight tribes have sports betting. This represents a massive expansion in gambling in Wisconsin—and with it will come more problem gamblers.
In addition to this gambling expansion, Governor Evers also last year approved the first off-reservation casino in the state. Beloit is the unlucky community for this family-harming, local-business-destroying enterprise. And this won’t be the last off-reservation casino since, again, what one tribe gets, eventually all eleven get.
When it comes to problem gamblers, studies have shown that having a casino within 10 miles—and some studies show 50 miles—of a person’s home significantly increases the likelihood of a person becoming a problem gambler.
A couple of sessions ago during the budget debate, Democrat Senator Lena Taylor recommended a 10% set-aside of the proposed $1million per year increase in illegal lottery advertising to be used to help minorities struggling with gambling problems. Unfortunately, the Republicans shot her idea down with no discussion. Part of the reason for this was just because a Democrat suggested it, but another reason is that the proceeds the state gets from all the gambling helps balance the state’s budget. It’s a sad way to govern when in order for the state to win, its citizens have to lose.
The hard truth is gambling for many people isn’t just innocent entertainment; it becomes a powerful addiction, impacting families and entire communities. It stresses marriages, results in crimes, especially embezzling, creates poverty for families, often causes depression and sometimes even suicide. In reality, problem gambling comes with a steep price tag for everyone who lives in a state where gambling is readily available.
Problem Gambling Awareness Month is a good time for all Wisconsin citizens to wake up to the truth about gambling and to learn from our history.
This is Julaine Appling for Wisconsin Family Council reminding you the prophet Hosea said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”
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