State government’s playing it both ways

By JAYSON JACOBY, Baker City Herald January 30, 2009 04:33 pm

Oregon’s government, I’d wager, has more in common with Las Vegas than most Oregonians realize.

Salem lacks a neon-studded Strip, of course.

And so far as I know Wayne Newton hasn’t played the State Fair since, well, forever.

But if you get on the e-mail list for various state agencies, as I have, you come to understand pretty quickly that working for certain of those agencies, and running a casino, are not such dissimilar careers as you probably supposed.

Although state workers aren’t likely to see Siegfried standing by the water cooler.

Or Roy.

Oregon, like Las Vegas, depends on people doing a certain amount of gambling.

The Oregon Lottery hints in some of its dispatches that you can literally scratch your way to financial independence.

Just this week, Lottery headquarters dashed off an e-mail proclaiming that during 2008, “Oregon Lottery Players from Baker, Grant, Union and Wallowa Counties claim more than $220,000 in prizes in traditional Lottery games.”

All told, 64 people won at least $600.

I was especially amused by the state’s describing the winners as “Oregon Lottery Players,” as though ticket-scratchers are members of a team, like the Trail Blazers.

The sporting theme continues throughout the press release.

It turns out that of the four counties listed, the real competitors reside in Union County.

They claimed more than $150,000 of last year’s booty, most of that going to Gary Parsons of La Grande, who won two $50,000 “Hot Slot Multiplier” jackpots last year.

(Now that’s a deal — even while you’re using a nickel to scrape away that gray stuff, you can pretend you’re plugging the coin into a slot machine. And a “hot” one, besides.)

Baker County residents, meanwhile, collected a measly $22,000 — just 10 percent of the bounty.

Grant County, which has less than half our population, brought in $34,000.

The Lottery is too polite to come right out and say so, but the implication of these comparisons, it seems to me, is that Baker County is home to a bunch of skinflints.

We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

What the Lottery also fails to mention, however, is how much money the players from those four counties shelled out to get their $220,000.

Gary Parsons probably ended the year in the black, but he belongs to an awfully tiny minority.

The one sure bet is that the house, whether it’s a state government or a casino, wins in the end.

You don’t build a replica of the Great Pyramid by paying out more than you take in, in any case.

I’ll admit that Oregon builds much more useful things with its Lottery profits.

State parks, for example.

I also consider somewhat compelling the argument that gambling, because it’s voluntary, is a more noble way (or at least a less brazen one) for the government to get our money than, say, taxation, which tends to be compulsory.

Still, I feel a trifle uneasy whenever I ponder the contradictory position our state has put itself in by relying on the risk-taking predilections of its citizens.

On the Lottery’s Web site there’s a link titled “Responsible Gambling.”

Those two words collide with an unpleasant crunch when I read them side-by-side. Most people who play the Lottery would never jeopardize their family or their job, sure, but it seems to me a sham to say that putting any amount of money on a game of chance is a “responsible” act. Just because a decision isn’t reckless doesn’t earn it the mantle of responsibility.

The state is of course obliged to admit that for some people, gambling of any sort can spawn an addiction that’s as dangerous as the dependence on a strong narcotic.

And I applaud Oregon’s government for promoting its free gambling addiction hotline. This service is supposed to help Lottery “players” who would plunder their kids’ piggybanks (and leave their toddlers in the car) for just one more hour of video poker.

Yet I expect I will continue to be troubled so long as the state maintains its curious, and to me precarious, position of being at the same time for, and against, gambling.

Vegas, by contrast, rests on solid ground, never shaken by pangs of hypocrisy.

Also it has those famously cheap all-you-can-eat buffets.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.