State-run casinos no big surprise: Kansas loves sin

Kansas will open the first casino the state will own sometime in December, prompting tut-tut comments across the state. Imagine Kansas, where bone-dry prohibition came into force in 1880 and remained the law for 70 years; where the state board of education put Charles Darwin on the endangered list; where anti-abortionists dominate the state Legislature actually going into the gambling business. My, my.
But things are rarely what they seem.
It is true that Kansas went dry in 1880 — and several times thereafter.
It is also true that Charlie Melvin, Iola’s mad bomber, blew up several Iola saloons in 1905 — 25 years into prohibition. They were called “joints,” at the time and flourished — except when bombed. (Let’s see, now, what is one of the slang meanings of “bombed?”)
The rest of the state was equally observant of the law. William Allen White, Emporia’s storied editor, once remarked that “Kansans staggered to the polls every two years and voted dry.” Iola, Humboldt and the Allen County countryside sported illegal stills. Corn whiskey was readily available and one of the area’s better breweries — an operation difficult to conceal — once drew customers in broad daylight.
While Kansas is about to distinguish itself for being the first state to go into the casino business, it has operated a lottery since the 1986 amendment to the constitution made lotteries, and by extension, other gambling, legal.
That vote first required two-thirds of the Legislature to get on the ballot and then a majority to approve it at the polls. Most Kansans in 1986 saw nothing sinful about gambling.
Years before that, slot machines helped finance country clubs, Elks lodges, VFW and American Legion halls and a host of other more or less private social facilities across the state. They were, to be sure, shut down by sheriffs and chiefs of police from time to time, but it is a myth to say that gambling offended the moral standards of the Kansas community — even though most of the ladies at any American Legion bingo game would have voted against it.
Burdett Loomis, a KU political scientist who is an acute observer of Kansas politics, said he thought that the idea of the state owning casinos was “a bit squirrely,” but followed up by saying, “when revenue is a consideration, old-fashioned morality sometimes goes out the window.”
And revenue is the main consideration. The state first will get $25 million up front from each of two planned casinos and then will reap 27 percent of casino revenues that will be shared with the local governments in-volved. The straight-lac-ed conservatives who run the state lick their lips in anticipation.
Robert Maynard Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago, once was accused at a public meeting of taking “dirty money” from slum properties it had been given. “I know,” he said, “so we wash it well and then put it to virtuous use.” Sixty years later his words will echo in the Kansas statehouse.

CASINO OWNERSHIP by the state probably became a viable idea when the federal government allowed Kansas native American tribes to build them on land they owned, on or off their reservations in the 1990s. It was logically offensive for the tribes to be allowed to operate an extremely profitable business in Kansas that was denied to other Kan-sans. The offense was compounded by the fact that the profits could not be taxed by Kansas.
Putting the state in the casino business levels that playing field.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.

N.B. I opposed the lottery. I continue to think gambling is a sleazy way to finance government because it tends to take money away from those who don’t have much to keep taxes on the well-to-do lower. But I gave up on the fight years ago because I also grant the right of the majority to make decisions. A lot of people get a kick out of casino gambling and maybe many who play in the state-owned casinos will take comfort in believing that their losses will help pay for some little tot’s kindergarten. They should savor that consolation while remembering that investors don’t sink half a billion dollars into a gambling palace expecting to pay out more than they take in. E.L.