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I come from a long line of recreational gamblers. My grandpa was an avid poker player and a frequent visitor to Arlington Park . Late in her years, my grandma always had a stack of lottery tickets on hand. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of evenings with my father at Maywood Racetrack, which offered harness races accentuated by the perfume of fat cigars and horse manure. To this day, my father often laments that no sport is interesting unless he has a bet on it.
While I have a warm place in my heart for a good wager, the gambling laws of Illinois are bewildering, and if I were to read them to a stranger, he or she would think there was no sense to them whatsoever. For example, Illinois has a state-run lottery, and while land-based casinos are illegal, permanently docking a huge gambling barge in a river isn't. Although I can walk into an off-track betting facility and put $2 to win on Mysunshine, it is illegal to make a bet with my friends over Sunday night football. Until last month, it was illegal to wager money on video poker, but patrons have bet on the sly in bars for decades. Now some Republican and Democrat lawmakers want to ban video poker altogether in their own municipalities.
In my lifetime, the kind of gambling allowed by the State of Illinois has always been justified by the tax revenue it generates. When riverboat casinos became legal in 1990, their proponents argued that they would be a boon for state taxes and provide relief for our ailing public schools. The state lottery was also supposed to raise millions of dollars for public education. Governor Pat Quinn legalized video poker under the rationale that it would help pay for public works projects. But I wonder why this justification needs to be made at all. Why is gambling only okay if it generates revenue for the state?
What business is it of the state if a person wants to bet on a horse race, baseball game, blackjack, the stock market, or anything else? A multibillion dollar business, as it turns out, and if money is being made anywhere, you better believe the state will be there to get its hands on as much of it as possible. Illinois charges its riverboat casinos an admissions tax of $3 per person and imposes a graduated wagering tax up to a maximum of 50 percent on annual adjusted gross receipts of $200 million or more. Before 2007, each of our ten riverboat casinos had to pay a base fee of between $30 and $200 million dollars to the state. That is in addition to the nearly $623 million per year in lottery revenue received by Illinois public schools (about 9.6 percent of its annual education budget).
The usual suspects of the right and left do not understand that economic freedom is at the heart of this matter. Gambling should be legalized, some liberals argue, so that it can be 'brought out of the shadows' by being taxed and regulated by the government. On the other side, Focus on the Family wants you to believe that legalized gambling will bring a wave of suicide, pawn shops, and other misfortune. In fact, in their 'issue analysis' on the subject, they cite the Illinois Council on Problem and Compulsive Gambling, which concluded that a grand total of 20 people had committed suicide as a result of gambling addiction in the eight years after riverboat casinos became legal in Illinois .
Not to worry, the State of Illinois actually allows you to ban yourself from riverboat casinos. To date, over 6,000 people have signed up for the program, and it is no joke. In May 2008, Hollywood Casino in Aurora was fined $800,000 for mailing promotional material to 146 'self-excluded' persons.
It is not the role of the state to pick and choose which forms of economic interaction to recognize, or to shield people from their personal failings. There is no logical reason why it should be legal to bet on a horse race and not on a poker game, or to play the slot machines on a boat and not on land. Does buoyancy make a difference? The distinction is ludicrous. Government has no right to ban the voluntary, mutual exchange of money between consenting adults, or to then turn around and 'allow' it as long as the state gets to keep a chunk of the winnings. All forms of gambling, as long as they are honest and voluntary, should be decriminalized and their taxation eased. Let us spin the roulette wheel, and let fate'not the government'decide whether we win or lose.