Friday, January 20, 2006

True Story: kids and the machine

A local restaurant installed a TouchPlay machine at the door, in plain view of every past, current and future problem gambler. As expected, my oldest spied this thing on our way into lunch one day, and -- given that all 11 year old boys lack impulse control hence a latent gambling problem -- he expressed a keen interest in lighting the thing up.

“Mom, can I play the machine?” my 11 year old asked.

“No, it’s illegal for you to play,” I said.

“Why?” he pressed.

“You’re too young, you have to be an adult to play,” I responded.

“What will happen if I play?” he inquired, pressing ever harder for that buck.

“You’ll get arrested and sent to juvi,” uttering every mother’s clutch response to those insane requests from a pesky kid.

“Oh. Can you play?” he asked, giving up on his first idea and moving to plan B.

“Yes, but I don’t want to, it’s a form of gambling and I don’t like to gamble … except when it comes to purchasing shoes,” I comment, reflecting on all the bad shoe purchases made over the years.

“Oh please, will you play it. Please,” begs my 11 year old.

“Yeah mom, play it,” chimes in my 9 year old.

“Okay. Fine. I’ll play. And I’ll show you guys exactly how easy it is to lose money gambling. It’ll be a good lesson on the evils of gambling,” I say, giving in to the whine on the premise of teaching these two a lesson.

Dollar in, hit the buttons and I am an instant winner of $20 bucks.

“Mom, you won!” yelled my 11 year old.

“Yeah Mom, you won!” confirmed my 9 year old.

“That wasn’t supposed to happen,” I said, “usually people lose when they play these machines.”

“But Mom, you won,” my now laughing 11 year old spits out, “great lesson about that evil gambling.”

“Way to go Mom. You’re lucky,” says the now laughing 9 year old.

“You know, it was the guy that played this thing ten minutes ago that probably sunk ten or twenty dollars in trying to win…,” I blah-blahed, attempting to spin a gambling lesson out of the situation.

“Sure, but still, Mom you won!” my 11 year old stated again with emphasis, interrupting my anti-gambling lecture.

“Let’s go spend it,” both say at once.

“Brilliant” I intone sarcastically.

The TouchPlay lottery controversy has unexpectedly become a marquee issue in this legislative session. Given that my experience is probably not unique, I’ll take odds that this is an issue that’ll stick around until November, particularly if the legislature is hamstrung in finding an acceptable resolution.

As the hearings gear up and Dr. Ed works the microphone and the legislators, the subtle -- but important -- message that “yeah, we should have done things differently, but it’s all about maximizing state revenue and look at all that money” is the baseline interest for the legislature. As reported by the DMR:

Lottery President Edward Stanek told a group of lawmakers Thursday that the state would face "a significant financial liability" if the Legislature decided to ban the devices — currently numbering nearly 5,000, with another 5,550 in the pipeline.

Based on existing contracts with 79 amusement operators and distributors, businesses would lose $90 million in projected annual revenue and their investment of about $100 million, Stanek said.

The state also would lose out on a significant source of revenue. The Iowa Lottery expects to reap about $30 million from the TouchPlay business in the current budget year and $45 million the following year.

The unfortunate deal is that the doctor is right: we can’t afford to give up the revenue these machines pull down nor can the state pull an “oops” given the level of business investment. It’s a tightrope the lottery and the legislature are going to have to walk.

The lucky thing is Ed Stanek is a smart guy, and he’ll work hard to find a solution that will maximize the lottery’s interests while managing voters’ legitimate concerns over family-friendly gambling at the grocery.

And voters flipped a winner when the GOP House named Rep Jeff Elgin to lead the TouchPlay committee. As a retiring Cedar Rapids Representative, Elgin might work this thing with a good bit of alligator blood, holding out for a resolution that works for all the stakeholders.

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