If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid manages to get a measure legalizing online poker in the United States attached to the tax-cut compromise hammered out between Republicans and the president, it would be more than just a disservice to those who believe in open debate and the democratic process. It would be a poke in the eye to states' rights.
Utah is one of only two states that have held out against all forms of legalized gambling. For the federal government to officially open the door to Internet poker would make it that much harder for the state to honor the will of its people and discourage such activity.
We're not naive enough to believe laws at the state or federal levels can stop all forms of gambling, especially over the Internet. Even though President George W. Bush signed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in 2006, which makes it illegal for credit processing companies to handle transactions related to online gambling, that didn't stop people here or elsewhere from finding ways to throw away money on bets from their home computers. By the same token, Utah's laws certainly don't prohibit state residents from crossing state lines and visiting casinos elsewhere.
But the Utah law clearly states an official position that reflects popular will.
That position is not just some quaint holdover from a by-gone Puritan era. It is backed by sound logic and a desire to avoid the societal costs and economic squandering brought on by games of chance. Those costs are more than just the devastation that comes into the lives of addicted gamblers, who make up a small portion of the population. It is measured in the vast amounts of money spent on empty chances for wealth, which otherwise either could have been spent on goods or services that help fuel the economy's productive engines, or saved and invested as security for the future.
Studies show low-income people spend a larger percentage of their incomes on gambling than does any other group. (A commission in 1999 found that 80 percent of gambling revenue came from households that earn less than $50,000 per year.) This is the reason state lotteries are so regressive, and yet states have become increasingly addicted to gambling of all forms. When times are tough, these states are put in the odd position of trying to find ways to induce more of their residents to throw money away on false hopes.
That's what makes Reid's efforts to legalize online poker so distasteful. Politicians have just brokered a deal that could hold the line on taxes to help the struggling economy, and yet the strongest argument in favor of legalizing Internet poker is that it will generate more than $1 billion in earnings that could be taxed. No one could reasonably argue against the notion that the increase in officially sanctioned gambling over the past few decades also has increased the numbers of Americans who gamble. Legalizing online poker would simply draw more money out of the economy without producing anything of value.
That may be a difficult argument to understand if you live in a state that already sanctions games of chance. But it shouldn't be difficult in Utah, where prosperity never has depended on such false hopes.