It is now patently clear that the issue of whether video lottery terminals should be allowed on St. Thomas has split the Virgin Islands community, with strong opinions on both sides. At a recent "anti-VLT" rally at the Christiansted bandstand, I attempted to introduce the idea of a public forum to debate both sides of this volatile issue. To my utter surprise and disappointment, this suggestion was met with boos and hisses. The upshot of this episode is that I am seen as uninformed on the issue and that my failure to "take a stand" means that I do not value public opinion! Nothing is further from the truth.
As private citizens, we have a right to our opinion and there is no obligation to do fair research. As a public official with the responsibility to make decisions affecting the populace, I believe that more is required before "taking a stand." I strongly believe that my position as an elected official requires that I not only inform myself, but also show to the public that I value input regarding all sides of any issue. This must not be confused with a lack of understanding of the subject matter. When I say that I need to weigh both sides of the issue, it does not mean that I have not read or understood the VLT law. What I value most is a non-emotional approach to such a very divisive issue.
Those who oppose the presence of these gambling devices have been extremely vocal in characterizing them as the "crack cocaine of gambling" and lamenting the detrimental effects on the social fabric of these islands. There are stories of homes lost, families destroyed, even suicides.
The proponents are just as convinced that the VLT's, which currently exist in several mainland states, can bring millions of dollars into the stagnant Virgin Islands economy. For example, VLT's have raked in millions for the government in places like Ohio and Delaware. According to a report in the Cincinnati Enquirer (Wed., July 21, 1999), "Slot machines helped pay off a $89-million debt in 18 months for Iowa's only thoroughbred race track." At a race track in Wilmington, Delaware, VLT's helped boost daily purses from $75,000 in 1995 to $250,000 in 1999."
There is ample evidence to support both sides. However, with the repeal of the existing legislation pending, with the case now being litigated in court, and noting the emotional response of the members of the community who are against introduction of the VLT's, some deliberation and study is in order.
The VLT issue has affected other communities in a similar way. From provinces in Canada to the far reaches of New Jersey, politicians and leaders are faced with the issue of the value of VLT's. It is instructive that the more reasoned leaders are taking the emotion out of the debate by providing forums for discussion of all aspects of the issue.
For example, in Canada, the VLT issue was threatening to split communities sharply down the middle. Some provinces were repealing them as a bad idea while others were interested in installing them. In response, the University of Alberta organized a conference on VLT's and video gaming. The three-day conference, subtitled "Issues and Impacts" brought together speakers representing a wide spectrum of views. The presenters came from diverse backgrounds and included academics, clergy, law-enforcement personnel, local government officials, members of the gambling industry, and even an employee of a company that programs and manufactures video gambling machines and a former blackjack dealer who trains people to work in casinos.
The promoter of the Canada conference stated, "We're seeing that there really are a lot of complex issues involved — even more than we thought. I think that there's a tendency to believe that some of these public policy issues are more simple than they actually are."
Additionally, as recently as last week, the governor of New Jersey, James E. McGreevey, appointed a commission to study the feasibility of VLT's at state-owned racetracks in North Jersey. The commission is charged with examining "the legal, economic and policy issues surrounding video lotteries in order to provide a thorough and extensive review of its implications in the state." The commission comprises New Jersey's attorney general, the chair of its Casino Control Commission, a university president, the executive director of the local AARP, and an assemblyman. With that in mind, my recent suggestion of a public debate/discussion on the issue of video lottery terminals should not come as such a shock and need not be interpreted as waffling or indecision.
It has been said that "leaders should lead." Although this phrase has superficial appeal, it is being used to suggest that I take a stand on a particular issue within a period of time which is determined completely by public sentiment. Let me repeat: As a public official, I value public opinion. Dialogue, research and deliberation are integral elements of a vibrant democracy. Although the rule of majority governs, democracy works better with an educated majority. As a democratically elected public representative, I believe it is my job to assist in that process.
That is why, as a leader, I have a responsibility to do more than follow public opinion. I must also honor the process of dialogue, research and deliberation, in order to avoid the pitfalls attached to rushing to judgment. As a legislator, the effects of any ill-conceived action on my part affect many people directly. Even if, in the end, my decision reflects public opinion, such a decision must be preceded by research rather than emotion. I have several people on staff to assist me; therefore, I should use the resources at my disposal to thoroughly research all issues on which I am expected to cast a vote.
The current state of affairs highlights the need for, and absence of, research and deliberation. It is highly likely that research, dialogue and deliberation might have prevented the current status of the issue. The media reports reflected much confusion regarding the identification and number of machines in the territory, whether they were licensed, the contents of the agreement, and the ramifications of terminating the existing contract. The courts are now being petitioned to resolve the debate. To my knowledge, the opponents of the VLT's have not publicly discussed these very significant aspects of the issue, and have not offered any real solutions.
Public debate on this issue provides an independent public service promoting a forum for informed discussion about the political, economic, and social effects of gambling and VLT's. Some opponents of VLT's and intelligent discussion are masquerading as "leaders" while insulting the intelligence of the populace. They have narrowed the debate to "If you support VLT's, you do not support St. Croix." Although I have stated publicly that I do not support any form of gambling, I do not believe that that is the entire debate. Presentation of any point of view necessarily requires balanced research on all aspects of gambling behavior and effects. Open discussion would involve the exploration of the regulatory, legislative, social, and educational issues relating to gambling.
Those of us who use the media to espouse a particular point of view have a moral responsibility to honor the whole truth, to show respect for differences that exist among us, and embrace a passion for intelligent debate. The current practice of mean-spiritedness and disrespect for a point of view different from one's own simply perpetuates the culture of negativity which is poisoning the community, while simultaneously showing a bad example to our youth.
We have absolutely nothing to lose by educating ourselves on the issues which affect our daily lives. Education is the hallmark of a true and effective democracy.
Ronald E. Russell
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