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Expansion of video gambling machines says money is the priority

The Champaign City Council is making the bold choice to expand the number of terminals in establishments with a license from five to six. The expansion was approved 7-2 by Champaign City Council last night. Greg Stock and Will Kyles were the only members to vote no.

This comes at a time when historic theaters in the center of our city are closing. While these two issues aren’t connected in the most literal sense, they are tied to the overall makeup of a city. The optics of expanding the number of gambling machines is something worth discussing because of what it says about priorities for City Council in Champaign.

Since they were legalized in 2012, we’ve seen the number of video gambling machines in Champaign-Urbana increase exponentially, enough to cause the Champaign City Council to vote in 2018 to limit the number of permits issued for “cafes or lounges” to 23.

A quick search on Google Map showcases the number of locations for video poker, which doesn’t take into account the bars and restaurants the machines exist in as well

The prioritization of video gambling represents the lack of concern by city leadership for those who fall victim to them. Saying that people have the “freedom” to spend their money as they wish in this situation presupposes a conscious choice to ignore the negative impact on the community; this mentality by our representatives indicates they would rather have the city earn money off of the machines than curb a culture that preys on people for profit, or find more cogent alternatives to a lingering budget problem in the city. 

All anecdotal evidence aside (i.e., the “but I never lose” rationale), these machines are literally engineered to win. Like most forms of gambling, there’s a game involved, but this is a computer we’re talking about. Just take a few minutes and watch the video Vox published on this very topic. This isn’t a deck of cards being shuffled and dealt by one human to another human playing Blackjack. This isn’t a ball spinning around a roulette wheel. This isn’t putting a few bucks down on a horse you think will win. This is a systematic profit machine that’s meant to beat you almost every time. Even if you win once, or twice, ultimately, you will cough up that money in the future. This is by design. 

Is the City of Champaign willing to continue the expansion to help pad their bottom line, even with the knowledge (or worse: the lack thereof) that gambling machines prey on our worst inclinations? The victims here are often from impoverished and underserved populations: low income communities, those disenfranchised by systemic economic barriers, people with gambling addictions. Where the machines are located, not necessarily the type of business in which they are placed, but their geographic location in the city, is worth noting. What does that say about our city and its leadership? That we’re willing to accept that the vast majority of people that utilize them lose, and because that generates dough for the city, we should just shrug and say “oh well, spend your money as you see fit?”

Signage for video gambling machines outside of Clark Bar near Downtown Champaign

There’s no ignoring that video gambling machines generate tens of thousands of dollars in revenue for the City of Champaign and the businesses that host them — whether that’s a bar in Downtown Champaign, or businesses specifically operated to host them (i.e., Jim’s, Lacey’s, Chelsea’s, Emma’s, etc.). The machines do create an alternative income stream for bars, an industry that can be tenuous; it isn’t lost on us as doing business is no walk in the park. Despite these small, local gains, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest they are doing more societal harm than good.

Last night’s passage to increase the number of terminals allowed isn’t a monumental shift in cultural ideology, but it is a symptom of Illinois leading the nation when it comes to video gambling. Comments from certain members of the City Council published in The News-Gazette and other news outlets are troubling, and in some cases, downright harmful. Chalking up the approval of expanding machine presence in the city to a “freedom” of spending money is such a shortsighted opinion that it can’t be ignored. Translation: “People lose? Not my problem.”

Looking out for the city’s bottom line is important, and we all want improvements to our public services. But if we’re willing to accept this as a solution for subsidizing road work, pensions, and everything else city tax revenue helps fund, that seems like a pretty bleak picture. There are alternatives that haven’t been explored that put the responsiblity for smart fiscal governance on the whole of the population instead of on those who might be struggling with true mental health issues like a gambling addiction. At a minimum, the passage of a vote like this should be paired with a more comprehensive and sensible approach to finding the tax money to solve the issues that the city faces.

The broader conversation about what video gambling machines represent is what is important as we construct a future for our city.

The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.

Photos by Patrick Singer

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