Against the Odds

Referendum E is a sucker bet, but the state's hooked on lottery games.

Kopel maintains that the lottery is a horribly inefficient way for the state to raise money. The agency spends 22 cents on prizes, commissions, promotion and other expenses for every 36 cents it takes in. Add to that, he says, the less quantifiable costs of bankruptcy, divorce and crime generated by compulsive-gambling problems. If a state that's currently running a surplus of nearly a billion dollars a year needs to raise more money for open space or school repairs, there are other ways to do it, such as slashing the generous commissions to retailers (around six cents on every dollar ticket sold) or a modest hike in "sin taxes" on tobacco or alcohol.

But as Kopel sees it, the hike isn't needed, anyway. "The lottery is not going down in revenue," he says. "The money for state recipients shot up last year, close to 6 percent. If it's going up without a multi-state lottery, then why the hell do you need one?"

The proposal has also been attacked -- by Lamborn, Kopel, state treasurer Mike Coffman and others -- on constitutional grounds. Unable to secure the votes for a constitutional amendment and facing a threatened veto of the bill by Governor Owens, Chlouber and other backers decided to reshape it as a statutory amendment and seek voter approval. But opponents say it's unclear in the current legislation to what extent a multi-state game will remain under the state's supervision (as required by the existing lottery law) or whether the provisions for transferring money from the general fund and exempting it from TABOR will pass muster.

Glenn Hilario
State senator Ken Chlouber is the power behind the Powerball push.
State senator Ken Chlouber is the power behind the Powerball push.

"There's going to be a lawsuit about it," Kopel vows. "If necessary, I will be the plaintiff."

Chlouber dismisses such objections as a "smokescreen" for what boils down to moral opposition to the state's growing role in the gambling racket. "Powerball is not going to solve all our problems, but it's one more step in that direction," he says. "There's no good reason not to do it. If Kopel and Coffman and the governor don't want to play, then they can go sit in the dark and stay there."

A moral distaste for the whole business does seem to tinge even the most reasoned attacks on state lotteries. For years, one of the most dogged anti-lottery crusaders at a national level has been conservative columnist (and former Nixon speechwriter) William Safire, and Colorado Springs's own James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, was a key member of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission. Lamborn admits that he has a conservative's unease with recent polls that indicate almost a third of Americans now believe their best chance to get wealthy is to win the lottery rather than by saving or investing. "I don't like the message that you can get something for nothing," he says.

But Chlouber believes fears of compulsive gambling are overblown. "We're still a nation that survives and thrives on individual freedom," he says. "Why are they so worried about the government being everybody's babysitter?"

He suggests that Powerball's astronomical odds might actually discourage pathological players. "As I understand it, compulsive gambling is fed by winning -- when you hit the jackpot a few times in a row," he says. "The odds with this are so bad, that reinforcement factor is not there."

According to Peggy B., compulsive gambling is not about winning or losing. It's not about good odds or bad, high-stakes or penny-ante games, rich suckers or poor ones, young or old, white or black, a stroll to the convenience store or a junket to Vegas.

"It's not about the money; it's about the action," she says. "It affects all walks of life. But we have no state funding for treatment. Most insurance companies won't cover it. And if your employer finds out you're a compulsive gambler, you're out the door."

Peggy B. is one of the legions of faceless twelve-steppers who have come to regard out-of-control gambling as not simply bad judgment, but an addiction, comparable to alcoholism or drug abuse -- an intricate pas de deux of brain chemistry and self-destructive behavior that has received clinical recognition in the standard psychiatric manuals and spawned its own self-help groups. As legalized gambling has spread across Colorado in recent years, so has Gamblers Anonymous.

A decade ago there were only two weekly meetings of GA in the entire state. Now there are meetings every night of the week in the Denver metro area; three nights a week in Colorado Springs; one night each in Fort Collins, Longmont and Cripple Creek; a monthly women-only group that Peggy B. helped organize; and a fledgling chapter opening in Cortez, near the casinos located on the Ute and Southern Ute reservations.

Most of the growth has been attributed to the limited-stakes casinos that opened in Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek nine years ago. Compulsive gamblers whose primary game is the lottery are hard to come by; researchers say that lottery compulsives tend to be more furtive, socially isolated and difficult to identify than other types of problem gamblers. Still, a few of them have found their way to Gamblers Anonymous.

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