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Politically Charged Task Faces Gambling Panel

By Elizabeth A. Palmer, CQ Staff Writer

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Sitting on a panel exploring whether gambling is addictive, casino executive J. Terrence Lanni wanted to know one thing: Did the witness stand by her statement that the gambling industry is "totally lacking in social conscience"?

"I totally believe that," said Valerie C. Lorenz, executive director of the Compulsive Gambling Center Inc., a treatment center for problem gamblers in Baltimore.

"I am offended by that," snapped Lanni, chairman of the board of MGM Grand Inc., a hotel and gaming conglomerate based in Las Vegas.

It was the first crack in a relentlessly polite two-day meeting of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, which brought its hearing to Atlantic City on Jan. 21-22.

The sharp exchange showed just how easily emotions are triggered by the debate over gaming.

And it illustrated just what a difficult task Congress assigned the eight men and one woman on the commission when it directed them to come up with facts about who gambles in the United States and why.

The commission is just one of hundreds of panels created by Congress to address policy questions ranging from the future of Medicare to the number of B-2 bombers to buy.

"Every time you've got a difficult question and somebody doesn't want to bite the bullet, someone raises the flag and appoints a commission," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.

For most of its existence, the gambling commission has been engulfed in controversy. Congress created the panel in 1996 (PL 104-169), but it took nearly a year for the commission to get going because of the politics surrounding the appointment of its members.

Of the nine members, President Clinton appointed three; House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., appointed two each; and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., appointed one each.

But the gambling industry did not like the politics of the commission. It argued that the panel's chairwoman, Kay C. James, dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., created by Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, has an anti-gambling agenda.

Her first choice for staff director withdrew after it was discovered that he had publicly taken a position opposed to gambling. The commission was criticized for permitting only anti-gambling lawmakers to testify at its first meeting last August.

Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, R-N.J., who represents Atlantic City and the 2nd District of New Jersey, said he was disappointed in the commission's agenda for the two-day visit. Besides taking testimony from elected officials and experts on the social and economic impact of gaming, the commission visited the Atlantic City Rescue Mission and a pawn shop along the Boardwalk and toured the security arrangements at Donald Trump's Taj Mahal casino, but not the casino itself.

LoBiondo wanted the commission to see the $83 million state-of-the-art high school in Atlantic City financed in part by casino taxes, but "we were basically all blown off" by the commission, he said.

Atlantic City Mayor James Whelan arranged for a bus tour of the city, which seven of the commissioners took but which was not part of an official agenda.

Gambling Studies

Perhaps nothing so clearly showed what difficulties the panel faces as the attempt to answer the relatively straightforward question of how many people are compulsive gamblers. The commission has approximately 18 months and $5 million to study the issue.

Howard J. Shaffer, director of addiction studies at Harvard Medical School, said he and two colleagues reviewed 120 studies of compulsive or problem gamblers and determined that only 1.6 percent of the adult population, or 2.2 million people, have a problem with gambling.The study was sponsored by the National Center for Responsible Gaming, a nonprofit organization largely funded by the gambling industry.

But Henry Lesieur of the Institute for Problem Gambling in Connecticut countered that those studies often are based on telephone surveys. And those surveys, he said, frequently miss problem gamblers who might not have phones or do not answer out of fear of creditors. He said the number of problem gamblers is much higher than studies suggested.

The two days of hearings in Atlantic City showed how few people are objective observers of gambling. Industry and union witnesses touted the 50,000 jobs created by the booming industry, which has brought New Jersey $7 billion in tax revenue since gaming was legalized here in 1977.

But their testimony was countered by a stream of witnesses who have paid a personal price for their gambling problems. Asked about the costs of gambling on society, Lesieur responded: "How do you measure the tears of someone at a funeral for someone who committed suicide?"

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday Jan. 24, 1998

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Firebrand GOP Class Of '94 Warms To Life On The Inside
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Politically Charged Task Faces Gambling Panel
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