BRANDON -- It started as a rhetorical question from a reader: In a city that has twice voted against a casino, why has there been no movement to rid Brandon of VLTs?
I expected the answer to be found somewhere on the spectrum between lack of political will and hypocrisy. What I didn't expect to find was that VLT usage in Brandon has reached a level that makes it virtually impossible to even contemplate removing the machines.
According to Manitoba Lotteries Corp. data, more than $200 million is gambled on VLTs in Brandon each year. When combined with other forms of gambling -- lotteries, scratch-and-win tickets, online gaming, sports betting and illegal gaming -- informed sources indicate that as much as $500 million is wagered in Brandon annually.
To grasp the magnitude of those numbers, consider that retail sales in Brandon and its surrounding rural municipalities in 2012 totalled just $1.03 billion. Brandonites' total income last year was just $1.65 billion, and that's before income taxes.
While proponents of gaming are quick to point out that more than three-quarters of the money gambled in VLTs are paid out in winnings, the argument glosses over the fact a substantial proportion of Brandonites' incomes are being put at risk and are being redistributed to others as a result of gaming. Indeed, it is the fundamental fact of gambling that the number of losers always exceeds the number of winners.
Manitoba has the highest number of VLTs per capita of any province. That translates into the highest per capita incidence of gambling addictions in Canada, along with alarming levels of gambling-related bankruptcies, criminal activity and child poverty.
While the social costs of gaming have been well-documented, another form of dependency created by VLTs in particular is far less apparent.
Brandon's hotels and restaurants rely heavily on commissions earned from VLTs. In many restaurants and bars, food and beverage sales are break-even at best, while VLT commissions pay the bills. Without the VLTs, a number of those establishments would not be viable. Their closure would put hundreds of Brandonites out of work.
On the other side of the equation, the hundreds of millions of dollars that are being spent on VLTs and other forms of gambling in Brandon aren't being used to purchase goods and services from local merchants. That hurts the local economy and costs jobs in the retail and service sectors.
Simply put, Manitoba's gaming policy has created a three-sided Catch-22 situation in Brandon, where the presence of VLTs has given rise to huge social costs and has harmed sectors of the local economy, but their removal would hurt another area of the economy.
With those facts in mind, what does the Selinger government hope to accomplish by adding even more VLTs throughout the province? With the level of VLT usage already so high in Brandon (and the strong likelihood that the activity levels are similar throughout the province), does our NDP government honestly believe millions more can be squeezed out of Manitobans' pockets without causing even more harm to families and the province's economy? Does it even care?
Lotteries Minister Steve Ashton isn't worried about the effect of the additional VLTs. He defends the increase by arguing that his government will be devoting more money than ever before to the treatment of gambling addictions.
That's quality spin, but there was an MLA who fought hard against the introduction of VLTs in the 1990s, arguing "Let us not kid ourselves, there are kids who are going hungry in this province. There are families that are breaking up, marriages that are breaking up because of gambling addiction."
That MLA's name was Steve Ashton.
Manitobans need to see the Selinger government's VLT increase for what it is -- yet another cash grab by a cynical government that would rather increase the number of Manitobans addicted to gambling than deal with its spending addiction.
It is a desperate strategy that may temporarily improve the province's cash flow, but it will leave the ruined lives of Manitobans in its wake.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon