I just participated in a 'survey' sponsored by the Vermont Lottery Commission. It was a little bizarre, somewhere on a spectrum between a 'push poll' and cheerleading camp. I walked out with $100 in cold, cool cash in my pocket and a newfound sadness at the state of the economy and VT's government.
But let me start at the beginning. Monday morning I got a phone message from a very pleasant sounding woman named Tammy at something called 'Portable Insights.' She wanted me to call her back to participate in a survey concerning a new gambling system proposed for VT. This sounded very suspicious, so I called the Lottery Commission to ask, and sure enough, it and the $100 she'd offered were for real.
So I called Tammy, down in MD it turns out, and got instructions to show up to the video-conference room at BUSH this evening (it took place there, we were told, because certain un-named individuals would be listening in on our discussion). The only questions she had for me were "Do you play any form of the lottery at least once every week or two?" and "Do you frequent a bar or restaurant every week or two?"
So nine of us showed up tonight and listened to a very pleasant gentleman named Jerry describe the game of KENO (always in full caps). For those who aren't familiar, it's the game you can see in bars and food joints in Mass. & NY with a screen up on the wall showing 80 orange numbered balls and different ones lighting up to depict the winning numbers. If you've put money into the machine and some of the numbers you've chosen get picked you are a winner, and the bartender will cash out your stub for you.
It turned out that seven of the nine of us play the lottery on a regular basis. One participant admitted to putting down up to $100 on a weekly basis. Jerry wanted to make sure that all of us know the benefits to the state's educational fund as a result of all of this legal gambling, and he asked a bunch of what seemed like leading questions. "Why do you enjoy playing the lottery?", "What phrases might we use to advertise KENO to other Vermonters?", "Are you familiar with the warning 'Gamble Responsibly'?"
I was the only one in the group who thought it was a bad idea. No surprise, really, considering the test questions that folks had to pass to get in the survey. "Why?" asked Jerry. "I understand that Vermont is facing difficult budgetary issues." I said, "This, however, just seems like another tax, only this tax is targeting two very vulnerable populations -- the poor and those addicted to gambling. Aside from that it seems like a bad idea to mix gambling with alcohol in a bar setting where people's better judgment might be depressed. Overall I'd say that this type of state sponsored gambling is a symptom of a civilization in decline."
What I wanted to say, but didn't, is that it smells like social cannibalism.
Jerry took it all in stride, respectfully honoring my concerns but also actively looking to people to refute my opinions on the matter. Near the end of it I said that I would likely leave a bar if I walked into one and saw it had KENO. His response was to say "We'll get you playing KENO yet, Tad."
The big questions I was left with are -- is it a done deal? Are these little blinking boxes going to start showing up in the seedier bars in Brattleboro? And above and beyond that, what will the real cost to the state of Vermont be, when all of the externalities are figured in? Is taking advantage of people drinking in bars really the best way to fund our public schools?