CEDAR RAPIDS – David Osterberg, part of the brain trust of the No Dice anti-gaming group in Linn County, last night conceded that pro-gambling backers have one statistic that is hard to battle.
It is a statistic that gaming industry spokesman Wes Ehrecke repeated several times: Ten counties that currently have gaming in Iowa voted by an average of 74 percent to retain casinos when they voted in November 2002.
If gaming causes all the economic and social ills that Osterberg says it does, why did all these Iowa counties currently with gambling vote so strongly in support? Ehrecke, president of the Iowa Gaming Association, asked.
Osterberg, a University of Iowa associate professor, acknowledged that 74 percent was a good number, but then suggested that he was surprised it wasn’t higher.
Those in a community don’t want to get rid of a company that employs people – even a bad company like a rendering plant – once it is in place.
The key is not to bring a casino to town in the first place, he said.
Osterberg and Ehrecke went round and round last night, each with his own set of statistics, at an informational forum at the Cedar Rapids Public Library’s Beems Auditorium. About 90 people attended the event, sponsored by The Gazette.
The county votes on gaming Nov. 4. A simple majority is needed. The countywide total determines the result for the entire county.
Jack Ketterer, administrator of the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, and Phil Suess, chairman of the mayor’s Citizen Commission on Gaming, also participated.
Osterberg said the studies showed that addiction and bankruptcies and related problems flower when a casino comes into a community while Ehrecke said the real problems are limited to 1 to 2 percent of gamblers.
Ehrecke noted an ongoing University of Northern Iowa study that has called 3,600 Iowans each of the last four years to check their gambling habits. Only 1 percent of those who gamble in the group have reported problems, he said.
Osterberg said gamblers lie all the time about how much they win and lose and so they certainly aren’t going to tell the truth reliably when asked if they have a gambling problem. He said addiction hits closer to 5 percent of gamblers.
Osterberg argues that a casino doesn’t create many jobs but shifts them from restaurants and shops that close because people lose money gambling and no longer have it to eat out and shop.
Ehrecke said that wasn’t true, saying Sioux City and Council Bluffs, for instance, have seen numerous restaurants open because of the crowds coming to casinos.
State law requires casinos to pay 125 percent of the federal minimum wage and Ehrecke said the average wage among the state’s 9,000 casino employees is $21,000 a year. Iowa’s casinos, he added, have good benefit packages. Many who have come to work in casinos have health insurance for the first time in their lives, he said.
Mayoral commission chairman Suess noted that the local commission had come to think that casino jobs largely provided second incomes to households.
One questioner challenged that assumption, saying he had four friends who made less than the average casino wage.
The state’s Ketterer suggested that the five-member state commission will decide at its November meeting to seek direction from the Iowa Legislature about increasing the number of gaming licenses. Currently there is a moratorium on new licenses.
Ketterer said the commission, too, wonders if the current rule requiring the state’s riverboat casinos to cruise ought to be abandoned. Gov. Tom Vilsack raised the same issue on Thursday in front of The Gazette editorial board.
Not needing to cruise would lead to the next question, do casinos need to be on water? Ketterer said.
Among Osterberg’s points was that out-of-state casino operators take a considerable amount of money in profits with them out of state. One questioner asked how that was any different from Wal- Mart and scores of other businesses doing the same. Osterberg said Wal-Mart doesn’t addict people.
Ehrecke said 90 percent of Iowans believe that people should be free to use their discretionary income on entertainment as they see fit.
He said Iowa gamblers spend on average $51 a casino visit, less than he spends at a University of Iowa football game. What of the money from a football game or a movie outing does a person take home with them? he asked.