Washington County or Casino County?

By Bill MacKenzie

You know the typical casino ad. The gorgeous blonde’s crystal blue eyes gaze adoringly at the urbane, fashionably dressed man as he places a bet. The couple is surrounded by smiling, equally fashionable friends enjoying the gaiety.

You almost expect Jay Gatsby to stroll into the scene from West Egg and enjoy the fun.

Dede’s Café, hiding off to the side in the Hillsboro Promenade at the corner of Southwest Baseline Road and Southwest Cornelius Pass Road in Hillsboro, is the raw reality of the casino Washington County has become.

At Dede’s, six video lottery machines with brightly lit screens are crammed into a space not much more expansive than a large walk-in closet. On a recent mid-afternoon visit, I found all the machines being used by solitary, slightly disheveled men and women in jeans and sweatshirts.

All of them looked hypnotized by the glow of the screen in front of them. Almost motionless, except for the rapid movement of their hands to push the play buttons, they sat mute in the dim light.

A man with a black hat pulled down over his gray hair slipped a $10 bill in one machine and started briskly tapping the play buttons. He got up to $46.45 on Game of Dragons II, but didn’t take his winnings and celebrate. Instead, in a few minutes he fell back to $5.19.

Switching to a Zeus game, he bounced up to $23.49. When he went to $6, he shifted to another game. After 20 minutes of play, when he was down to 35 cents, he slipped in another $20 bill and resumed play.

MIT anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll knows such people well. In her book, “Addiction by Design,” she shows how the rhythm of gambling at electronic terminals puts people into a trancelike state in which gamblers keep playing not to win, but so they can stay “in the game” and maximize their “time on device.”

Oregon voters overwhelmingly approved the lottery in 1984. It launched in 1985 at a Portland event featuring an 84-foot-tall inflatable King Kong, perhaps symbolizing the behemoth the lottery would become.

Dede’s Café is now part of a rising river of lottery money flooding Oregon. The money has turned the county and the state into unwitting addicts as Oregon’s lottery take has gone from $87.8 million in 1986 to $1.1 billion in 2013. It’s a very big business.

The lure of raking in lottery dollars without having to raise taxes has long been appealing to politicians anxious to satiate government’s insatiable thirst for revenue. In fact, the lottery is often referred to as a “voluntary tax,” though Schüll’s research calls the “voluntary” part into question.

In fiscal year 2013, 204 lottery retailers in Washington County generated net receipts of $87.7 million from 1,035 video terminals, almost equal to the number of video slot machines at the Wildhorse Casino in Pendleton.

The numbers are even more impressive when you combine net receipts from video terminals with sales of traditional games, such as scratch-its and Megabucks. Together, these totaled $125.7 million in all of Washington County.

Washington County sees a return from all this gambling activity in the form of direct and indirect jobs and money the state devotes to parks, natural resources, education and various economic development efforts.

The county also receives direct payments equal to 2.5 percent of lottery proceeds. This money must be applied to economic development/job creation programs, liberating county revenue for other priorities.

But the lottery bounty also means the county and state are increasingly relying on the generous flow of lottery dollars, which are not a dependable or sustainable source of revenue. If lottery revenue declines, or even fails to grow, a lot of established programs could face tough adjustments.

Washington County residents are getting decidedly mixed messages. On the one hand, business and government leaders are aggressively delivering messages about the importance of education and hard work in achieving success.

At the same time, the lottery undermines the messages by constantly suggesting in tantalizing ads and much ballyhooed winner announcements that riches are just one lucky ticket or one play away.

So go ahead. Make your wager. Just remember that in the end, the house always wins.

Bill MacKenzie is a former congressional staff member, newspaper reporter and communications manager for a Hillsboro company.

Originally published in the Hillsboro Tribune,  Nov. 11, 2013

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