The General Accounting Office (GAO) recently published a report that found soft-money contributions by gambling interests to both national political parties have increased by about 840 percent since 1992. The GAO report, which was requested by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), an independent research organization, also found that hard-money contributions from individuals with gambling ties to federal candidates increased by 80 percent during the same period. The total number of candidates for federal office who received hard-money gifts from gambling interests was 146 in 1992, 239 in 1994, and 378 in 1996. The number declined slightly to 269 in 1998. The GAO says the figures are conservative because state elections were not included and contributions under $200 are not required to be reported to the Federal Election Commission. Yes, the "gaming industry" responds that gambling is legal and so are its contributions. True enough. But something does not have to be illegal to have a corrosive effect on society. In the 1998 election, South Carolina governor David Beasley was defeated, largely because he opposed video poker, and the gambling industry killed his reelection efforts by tying the "lost revenue" to a decline in education opportunities for the children of his state. He is not alone as more politicians feel the pressure to turn the United States into one huge casino and politicians into their wholly owned subsidiaries. According to CRP's analysis, total contributions from gambling interests to federal candidates and national party committees rose from $1.1 million in 1992, a presidential election year, to $5.7 million in 1998, a midterm election year. During the same period, says the GAO, overall election campaign receipts in hard money to congressional candidates and in soft money to national party committees increased from $617 million to $851 million. In a CRP analysis of 1998 election contributions by 92 industry and interest groups, the contributions ranged from $56,000 to $59 million, and the gambling industry ranked as the 37th highest. Is there any reason to believe, with so much at stake in the 2000 election, that gambling money won't be sought and given in even greater amounts? Rep. Wolf, who authored the bill that led to the creation of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, says that gambling is the nation's fastest growing industry. Always searching for new sources of revenue, politicians have mostly looked the other way when it comes to gambling and ignored the corrosive influence gambling has on many people. Americans, he says, now wager $600 billion a year. In 1992 it was $329 billion. In 1974 it was $17 billion. Gambling isn't harmless, as proponents claim. It can be addictive for many, causing pain and suffering not only to the gamblers but also to their families and communities. The gambling commission, which issued its report in June, found that gambling disproportionately affects the poor. Gamblers with household incomes under $10,000 wagered nearly three times more than those with household incomes over $50,000. Since gambling, by definition, makes money from losers, many people drop money they can't afford to lose. The working poor and many elderly people are customers of gambling interests, who contribute to politicians in a type of protection racket that helps insulate them from accountability. Mr. Wolf has long advocated the banning of soft money from gambling interests to the Republican and Democratic national parties. Good luck. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf heads gambling's biggest lobby, the American Gaming Association. According to the gambling impact study, ever younger people are starting to gamble, often beginning with lotteries and even playing games with age restrictions. Like going to the movies, kids can get around rules. Sports betting also remains a problem, risking the integrity of college athletics. Mr. Wolf is right. The place to start reform is with the political parties. It's going to be tough because asking politicians to give up a source of money is like asking Dracula to forsake blood.
-© 1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate