Sometimes casting a vote feels like a gamble

By Jayson Jacoby October 12, 2012 04:01 pm

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald

When I read “The Grange” I think of potlucks where the apple pie is always exquisite and the conversation, inevitably, turns to crops.

I don’t think of slot machines and roulette wheels.

But I might have to start.

 

Some people who want to build Oregon’s first non-tribal casino came to my office recently to make their pitch to the Herald’s editorial board (that’s me, publisher Kari Borgen, and reporter Chris Collins).

This group is promoting two measures on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Measure 82 would change the Oregon Constitution to allow non-tribal casinos in certain cases, and certain places — more about that later.

Measure 83 would specifically allow one such casino — The Grange — in Wood Village, a suburb east of Portland.

The presentation was slick and informative.

It was obvious to me that pretty much any question a suspicious journalist might ask would be answered with precision and confidence.

Not that this thoroughness surprised me.

Clairvest, the Canadian firm bankrolling this proposed $300 million casino, isn’t apt to go cheap on the propaganda, after all.

Although I strive in my own work to write as directly as I can, I was more amused than offended by the relentless reliance on euphemism in the folder of information the promoters handed out.

The fact sheet, for instance, uses an eye-catching bold font in referring to The Grange as a “family-friendly entertainment center” but reverts to a plain style for the dreaded noun “casino.”

In fact that word is conspicuous for its scarcity, being relegated generally to the end of sentences that instead extoll pleasant terms such as “water playground,” “outdoor plaza” and “bowling alley.”

“Gambling” seems to be absent altogether, replaced by the quite similar, but much less malevolent, “gaming.”

There’s nothing nefarious about any of this, of course. Even the most casual reader (and voter) will recognize that what these measures are really about is the future of gambling in Oregon, not whether we need a new “multi-entertainment destination,” which sounds like nothing so much as a Disney venture.

I suspect that the only voters who will quickly dismiss Measures 82 and 83 are those who can’t condone gambling.

I’m not a big better myself, but I find it impossible to decry gambling in a state where I can blow the mortgage payments on lottery tickets and in so doing help support the schools and universities that three of my four kids attend.

That wouldn’t exactly be hypocrisy — I wasn’t old enough to vote when Oregonians endorsed the Lottery in 1984 — but it feels uncomfortably close to it.

When I first heard about Measure 82 I envisioned a future for my beloved Oregon that looked an awful lot like Nevada.

Only without quite so much sagebrush.

But after reading the full text of the measure I think my fear is unfounded.

Measure 82 includes hurdles that developers would have to clear to qualify to build a non-tribal casino. These obstacles seem to me awfully high.

Backers of such a development would have to convince voters to pass a separate, statewide initiative (Measure 83, in the case of The Grange), create an Oregon company to own and operate the casino, build it at least 60 miles (as the crow flies) from an existing tribal casino, and pay 25 percent of the gross gambling revenue to the state. That last, by the way, is something tribes don’t have to do.

You can’t replicate the Vegas strip (or probably even, say, Jackpot) with those restrictions.

But even if Measure 82 didn’t spawn a flurry of casino-building in Oregon, The Grange, with its 2,200 slot machines and 100 tables, surely would cut into the action not only at the state’s tribal casinos, but also the Oregon Lotttery, which puts more dollars into state coffers than any source except income taxes.

Not necessarily so, according to The Grange’s backers.

They argue that as Oregon’s population grows, so too will the pot of gambling dollars spent in the state.

That’s probably true.

But I suspect it would take years, if not decades, for population growth to make up for the hundreds of millions of dollars The Grange would siphon.

I’m leery of backing with my vote a project that would harm tribal casinos — one of the more positive things to happen for tribes in a lot of decades. The tribes, though exempt from state taxes, have spent many millions on philanthropy, both on and off reservations.

The Grange promoters countered this concern, which no doubt will occur to a lot of voters, with what struck me as their ace in the hole.

The Cowlitz tribe wants to build a big casino at La Center, Wash., about 15 miles north of Portland.

The bottom line, according to The Grange backers, is that the construction of a mega-casino in the Portland metro area is imminent.

The real question, they say, is whether the casino will be built in Washington, leaving only the crumbs of this big new economic pie for Oregon to sift through, or whether the casino will enrich Oregon schools, parks and other public programs.

(Oregon’s tribes would get 3 percent of the gross gambling revenue, too.)

A compelling argument, to be sure.

Except it’s compelling only if the Cowlitz tribe’s casino is a sure thing.

So far as I can tell, it’s not.

The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver reported recently that the federal government might soon rescind a 2010 decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs authorizing the La Center casino.

So long as the Cowlitz casino project looks likely, the campaign for The Grange can argue plausibly that the real choice for Oregon voters Nov. 6 is not whether to endorse gambling.

The decision, rather, is whether we want casino dollars to stay on the north side of the Columbia, or to go to our kids’ classrooms.

If the matter were truly that simple, I doubt I would spend more than a moment filling out that section of my ballot.

But I know better.

And I expect that regardless of which little circle I darken, I’ll feel, at that instant, as if I’ve tossed the dice onto a patch of green felt.