Where the VLT argument fails

Rocky Mountain House pub owner Jim Pogson needn’t be the only person disappointed in the recent vote over keeping VLT gambling out of town. When you talk about video lottery terminals and participatory democracy, there’s plenty of disappointment to go around.

Rocky Mountain House pub owner Jim Pogson needn’t be the only person disappointed in the recent vote over keeping VLT gambling out of town. When you talk about video lottery terminals and participatory democracy, there’s plenty of disappointment to go around.

First, there’s the concept that bar owners need those machines to maintain staffing levels in an economic downturn. That’s about as close to false economy as you can get. If bringing VLTs into a town where the majority are resolutely against having them is your ticket to keeping people on the payroll, there’s only one step left: asking for a government bailout.

Also disappointing is the low voter turnout, even from people who actively requested the plebiscite. Less than 30 per cent of the people who signed a petition requesting a second plebiscite on Rocky’s VLT bylaw actually showed up to fill out a ballot. And that’s with organizers spending hours on the phone to get out the vote.

So the margin of people who would rather live in a town with fewer gambling-related job opportunities increased from 65 per cent to 75 per cent. Even from a sample of 1,150 people, that’s a pretty strong indication of community values.

The problem — at least for the people who make their living off the gambling industry — is that our infatuation with gambling is levelling off.

For the first time in 16 years, Statistics Canada reported that total government-run gambling revenues dropped in 2008. Not by much — only $30 million from a total of $13.7 billion in 2007 — but still, a drop.

Casinos show growth, but lottery sales have hit a plateau and VLT gambling (once called the crack cocaine of gambling) has dropped.

The worrisome stat is that in 2000, 74 per cent of Canadian households reported gambling at least once in the previous year, participating in lotteries, bingo, casinos or slot machines. By 2008, that figure dropped to 52 per cent. Yet, as we can see, revenues are still pretty much the same.

That means a minority of gamblers are dropping one heck of a lot of money. Alberta and Saskatchewan are the top gambling provinces in Canada, with well above $800 a year spent per person (even though not all people gamble, not by a long shot). The national average was $525 in 2008.

But if you want to attract patronage to your bar, adding VLT machines probably isn’t the way to go anymore.

Some people mention how charities get a lot of support from government-run gambling.

But as Rev. Len Batterlink of Rocky’s Ministerial Association said: “There’s got to be a better way to get money to charities.”

Fortunately, there is. And the Alberta government is showing a lot of leadership providing it.

Through the Alberta Culture and Community Spirit fund, the Alberta government will provide $2 for every $1 you donate directly to a charity, up to $25,000 a year per charity.

Plus, the province will give you tax points on your income tax, bringing your total refund to 50 per cent of donations over $200 a year.

It’s a better bet for your staff, their families and your town, than plugging dollars into a VLT machine.

Incidentally, the government did this good work without asking for your opinion in a vote.

Considering our flagging interest in voting, even when we demand there be a vote, maybe that’s just as well.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.

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