Adding more games to racinos is a bet NM shouldn’t take

It seems most times there’s a proposal to expand gambling in New Mexico, supporters try to shore up their initiative with promises of more money for education.

This time, it’s a projected additional $15 million for lottery scholarships by adding blackjack, poker and other live table games, plus sportsbooks, at the state’s five racinos.

Currently the state’s hard-fought compacts with New Mexico’s pueblos and tribes limit the racinos to slots and provide the gaming tribes exclusivity on table games. Despite assurances to the contrary, here’s betting the tribes will be none too happy about changing the rules midgame and will refuse to let it ride.

New Mexico soundly rejected adding a sixth racino, in great part because the market is saturated. And we remain one of the poorest states in the nation, with 40% of the population on Medicaid, one in four residents on food stamps, nearly 80% of residents with less than $10,000 in savings and about 12.2% of our senior citizens living in poverty.

And yet we want still more folks to place their bets? While putting $80 million from gaming tribes at risk to get an estimated $15 million for scholarships (and $25 million for the general fund)?

Let’s remember the promises that came with the establishment of the New Mexico lottery in 1996, how it was going to provide a 100% lottery scholarship for all New Mexican high school graduates who attend a state university full-time and meet a minimum grade point average. And let’s remember how that decreased to 90%, then 60% by 2017 due to rising tuition, expanded use of the program and largely stagnant lottery ticket sales.

The promise of free tuition became a check the state could not cover, and state lawmakers have had to scale back the benefits. While the governor is proposing free college tuition via her Opportunity Scholarship program, how that will be paid for remains to be seen. Currently, Opportunity Scholarships only apply to two-year institutions.

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Lawmakers meanwhile have not scaled back the gambling that too often preys upon poor people looking to turn their lives around with a couple-of-bucks wager. In fact, they tried to add ticket sales at the pump and have floated other irresponsible ideas that include alcohol sales and ATMs on the casino floor.

Backers of the proposed legislation say it could bolster job creation and state revenues. “This is a totally new revenue stream we’re looking for,” said Rep. Raymundo “Ray” Lara, D-Chamberino, one of five sponsors.

But there are many adverse effects lurking just below the revenue stream surface. One is that the extra $40 million will come from people losing money they can ill afford at blackjack and poker tables at the five racinos in Sunland Park, Farmington, Hobbs, Ruidoso and Albuquerque.

“Sure, problem gamblers will lose more, but we all win in the end,” seems to be the rationale. And while supporter Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell, is right, we want more New Mexicans to stay in the state for college and pursue careers within New Mexico, we need to ask if this is the way to do that, and at what societal costs.

Given the high stakes, unfulfilled past promises and entrenched poverty in New Mexico, lawmakers should view the racino expansion proposal with a very wary eye and drill down to who’s really paying for all this.

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