John Colson: Gambling for water projects — a bad idea

John Colson
Hit & Run

Last week in this space, I gave my blessing (whatever that might mean) to the pending passage of a statewide ballot question, Proposition CC, that would essentially “de-Bruce” the state’s financial framework, meaning it would remove forever the crippling restrictions placed on state finances by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights in 1992.

For those who might not remember, or never knew, I outlined the background of Douglas Bruce, the author of the TABOR act, and the financial chaos it brought to our state budgeting procedures.

This week, I will take a look at the other statewide question, Prop DD — which asks voters to legalize sports betting in order to pay for water projects and “obligations” concerning use of Colorado River water.

Let me say at the outset that I am suspicious of this proposition for two reasons, one having to do with the likelihood that passage of this ballot question will mean a revival of a battle that has twice before been put to rest — the construction of a dam on the Crystal River.

This time the dam is envisioned for some point above the town of Marble, rather than the old Placita and Osgood dam proposals that would have drowned the village of Redstone and would have put a lake bigger than Ruedi Reservoir (on the Fryingpan River) along a stretch of the Crystal Valley.

Plans for this latest reservoir apparently cropped up only recently, and have been kept pretty close to the chest of those behind Prop DD, probably due to the decades-long fight by the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) that finally scuttled the Placita and Osgood dams only a few years ago.

The folks at CVEPA, upon learning of this latest dam plan, have begun mobilizing their forces to once again defend the Crystal River, which they had once hoped would receive Wild & Scenic designation and put it beyond the reach of the dam builders and water wasters.

The second reason for my opposition is partly that I do not believe this proposition will supply anywhere near enough money to pay for the planning, construction and upkeep of new water projects around Colorado, but also has to do with the idea that once this kind of water-project planning gets rolling, it is very hard to stop.

Plus, I oppose state-sanctioned gambling for any reason, because I believe it encourages people to do something they can ill afford — go to a casino, or a race track or some other sports gambling venue, to make bets on the outcome of the event on hand.

Study after study has shown that for far too many people, this means losing (you realize that most people lose when gambling, right?) cash that might otherwise have gone for silly incidentals such as food or rent or clothes for their children.

The fact that we already have state-sanctioned gambling (casinos, the state lottery system) might seem to some like a fine reason to approve more gambling, but I am not one of those people.

Using the ongoing panic over global warming and its effect on the river as a stimulus, the state legislature is hoping that voters will be perfectly OK with a plan to legalize, regulate and tax sports betting as a way to generate money that could pay for new dams and other infrastructure aimed at keeping as much as possible of the Colorado River’s water in Colorado, for use by Coloradans.

Though I cannot deny we have to do something to satisfy the growing thirst of our state’s rising population, not to mention the hypergrowth of Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles. But this is not the way to do it.

Gambling on sporting events, currently illegal in this state (though it does take place illegally), would not generate the kind of money needed to accomplish the state’s goal.

A 2010 study indicated that Colorado needs some $20 billion worth of water projects in order to bridge a water-supply gap that is projected to reach a critical point by the year 2050.

Prop DD would provide as much as $27.2 million a year for water projects and obligations under the Colorado River Compact; up to $1.7 million a year for a “hold harmless” fund that would cover losses to existing gambling entities due to the advent of sports betting; and a paltry $130,000 a year to deal with the anticipated rise in gambling addiction cases.

That last item, the “addiction services,” is at the heart of Prop DD’s troubling moral implications.

We all know by now, or should know, that gambling is an addiction, a disease, and Colorado already has plenty of opportunities for people to waste money that too often is almost literally stolen from the family cookie jar.

Prop DD’s counseling fund for gambling addicts is insultingly tiny to begin with — $131,000 annually, compared with up to $27 million each year for the water projects.

And while the revenue for dams and water projects could rise every year, under Prop DD, the money for counseling would remain fixed at $131,000 each year into the future.

That means that the already ludicrously inadequate counseling fund would only become more ridiculous and inadequate over time.

This is a deeply flawed proposition, one that could well harm untold numbers of Coloradans and still not solve the problems related to the dwindling Colorado River, and it should not be approved.

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