Your casino, your loan shark

Ever since casinos became legal in Missouri in 1992,  we’ve seen one broken promise after another, and now the gambling-industrial complex is doing it again. They’ve convinced at least one Missouri legislator [I wonder how they did that?] to sponsor a bill that would let them loan money to tapped-out gamblers.

Missouri is not the first state to contemplate allowing empty-pocket crapshooters to borrow from the house. According to the Examiner, Mike Winter, who lobbies for the Missouri Gaming Commission, says 10 of the 15 states with land-based or riverboat casinos allow casinos to grant credit. Pinnacle Entertainment, which operates casinos in Missouri, already handles credit applications at casinos in Indiana and Louisiana.

How did we get to this particularly unhealthy and unhelpful idea? Let’s see: In Missouri, we went from gambling only on riverboats that ostensibly “cruised” for two hours, to boats in pretend moats; from a $500-per-two-hours gambling-loss limit, to lose as much as you can lose whenever you can lose it; from a lifetime ban on compulsive gamblers to a welcome mat. One after another, restrictions on casinos have been lobbied and legislated into oblivion.

And now, under the pretense of helping hapless, high-roller professional athletes, Missouri is on the verge of turning casinos into loan sharks. Gambling [I refuse to use the term “gaming”] industry lobbyists and their paid employees—Missouri legislators—want us to believe that millionaire professional athletes who roll into town need loans for their high-stakes gambling entertainment. [Some of these people, apparently, gamble with as much as $30,000 in an evening.] We can’t expect them to carry that much cash around, argue the lobbyists, so we need to allow casinos to loan them the money to piss away at the craps tables.

That’s a very clever cover story, but it doesn’t hold enough water to float a toy boat in a fake moat. Do they want us to believe that athletes with huge salaries and financial advisors to manage them don’t have high-limit credit cards to tap into? Really?

No, loans to gamblers are not really for already-well-staked athletes. They’re a great way for casinos to rake in even more money—through a new revenue stream of interest payments–from everybody, particularly the average person who gets in over his or her head and needs just a little more to win it all back. What a great strategy for the casinos—keep customers gambling longer, losing more money, and then paying it back with interest.

They’d like us to believe gambling loans will be innocuous and that applicants will be carefully screened. If you want an instant casino loan, you’ll have to show that you qualify for a $5,000 line of credit. That sounds reasonable enough, until you find out that the casinos will be using criteria similar to those employed by furniture stores and used-car dealers—and they’re widely known as some of America’s most discriminating bankers, right?

And, by the way, does anyone know what the interest rates on gambling loans will be? Missouri already permits exorbitant interest rates on payday loans, [averaging between 300 and 400 percent],  and efforts to reduce those rates are regularly squelched in the legislature. Will borrowers do any better with a loan from a casino? Isn’t this what used to be called, in the old-time gangster days, “vig?”

Instant loans to gamblers is a lousy idea with no redeeming value, except for the added value it provides to casino operators.  Even casino operators themselves know this. A recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial notes that some of the operators’ own websites offer links to tool kits that help people identify their own problem gambling.

The kit opens with 10 questions, a “yes” answer to any of which indicates a gambling problem. Question 7: “Have you ever borrowed money to pay for your gambling?”

[Another website] lists 10 statements under “How do you know if you have a gambling problem? One says, “You have borrowed money to finance your gambling.”

None of this subterfuge and cynical exploitation should come as a surprise. The history of the gambling industry in Missouri and elsewhere is a story of backroom deals and deliberate, patient, incremental erosion of the limitations initially promised by casinos and legislators to protect customers from themselves.

State-sanctioned gambling—under the phony pretext of helping to fund education—is already a giveaway to corporations whose product is designed to do nothing except empty its customers’ pockets. Do we really need to give the already predatory gambling industry another way to scam its customers?