Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NDP needs its fix

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Faced with mounting criticism of the evils of gambling, the Conservative government of Gary Filmon imposed a moratorium on VLT expansion in 1993, but even that wasn't good enough for then NDP leader Gary Doer, who said it was just a ploy by the Tories to get re-elected.

Mr. Doer suggested the open-ended moratorium left room for the Tories to expand VLT gambling after the next election.

In any event, it wasn't long before hotels and business groups started complaining that the ban on adding VLTs to new sites was hurting their bottom line because they couldn't compete with bars and lounges that offered the crack cocaine of gambling.

The Filmon government, however, held fast for the next six years, when it was defeated by Mr. Doer's New Democrats.

Today's NDP has since announced it will add some 500 VLTs to new and existing sites in order to raise an estimated $18 million in new revenue every year.

The question, of course, is why now?

Since the NDP came to power in 1999, the city has undergone a building and development boom. The city has grown, new hotels and nightclubs have multiplied, a new arena was built downtown and a new optimism has emerged with the arrival of an NHL team.

The NDP could have justified an increase in VLTs at almost any time since it was elected, but they hedged their bets, probably because times were good, federal money was flowing and the deficit was under control.

But those halcyon days are over. The province's finances are in trouble and burdened with a serious structural deficit.

The timing of the VLT expansion, in other words, appears to be related to the same fiscal realities that forced the NDP to increase the PST. The increase in the sales tax was billed as an infrastructure fund, but in reality it appears designed to help the NDP cope with its fiscal problems.

The VLT expansion might be warranted by the city's growth, but that growth has been evident almost from the day the NDP were elected. The government could have justified an increase to satisfy pent-up demand, but it instead waited until now, its moment of greatest need.

Voters might forgive an increase in the PST and in the price of beer and liquor and all the other new taxes, but they are unlikely to do so if the deficit isn't reduced or eliminated

But the easiest political way to control the deficit and maintain spending programs is through increased revenues, and the easiest ways to do that was through a hike in the sale tax, an increase in gambling and stiffer prices at the government-run liquor emporiums.

The NDP's desperation was also evident in the way it mishandled the attempt to force the Manitoba Jockey Club to hand over the Assiniboia Downs to the Red River Exhibition Association. The NDP made it clear it was unhappy with its VLT deal with the Downs, which gives the race track the first $6.5 million in revenue from 140 machines.

The government threatened to move the machines to so-called higher-performing venues, even though the Downs' machines are doing very well. The problem is they aren't generating much revenue for the province under the existing arrangement.

Yet the province has no problem with a generous revenue-sharing agreement with the MTS Centre, a for-profit operation, compared to the not-for-profit Downs.

In terms of gambling machines of all types, Manitoba has among the most in Canada on a per-capita basis, more evidence of the government's addiction to this source of revenue.

Ultimately, the government can mitigate the moral questions of gambling by removing itself as the operator and confining its role to simple regulation.

There's less money for the government in that solution, however, and there's the rub.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 15, 2013 A8

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