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State lotterys rules seem murky at edges

Either the lottery itself or the Legislature needs to step in so that Jantzen Beach-type problems are no longer possible

The Oregon State Lottery must pay greater attention to the terrible effect that government-sponsored gambling has on surrounding neighborhoods - and if it doesn't, the Legislature certainly should force the issue.

For far too long, the state lottery has tolerated a variety of practices that skirt around the edges of the lottery's own rules, not to mention the state constitution's ban on nontribal casinos.

The most egregious example of the lottery's failure to fully enforce the rules can be found at Hayden Island's Jantzen Beach, where a dozen bars and restaurants have been granted permission to host six lottery terminals apiece.

These 72 video terminals, crammed into one strip mall, form the functional equivalent of a casino. The predictable result is that Hayden Island is overwhelmed with problems that a casino brings: Gambling addiction, drug dealing, blight and a doubling of the general crime rate.

These issues are most evident at Hayden Island, but it isn't the only place where lottery rules are loosely interpreted. Other communities also have experienced a clustering of lottery vendors. Lake Oswego and its fringe have had fewer problems than most areas, but there are several possible spots that could be a concern.

At the same time, 'lottery delis' have spread throughout Oregon, offering little in the way of food, but instead luring customers with cheap cigarettes and multiple gambling devices.

Over the years, lottery officials have tinkered with the rules to try to force these mini-casinos to offer more than mere gambling. The current regulations require that half the gross sales from these establishments come from something other than gambling, but that rule only encouraged even greater sales of cigarettes - thereby promoting two forms of addiction.

Lottery officials argue that, from a legal point of view, these delis are not mini-casinos. Simple observation, however, would lead most anyone to conclude otherwise. These delis exist solely to push gambling, and a large portion of their clientele is likely composed of habitual gamblers.

When these delis are crowded into one small area, as they are at Jantzen Beach, the lottery's impact is an overwhelmingly negative one.

We believe the lottery can take additional measures to limit the harmful effect gambling has on communities. Lottery officials have, understandably, concentrated their efforts on maximizing lottery revenues, which unfortunately are needed to fund vital state programs and economic development. However, officials must do a better job of balancing the need for revenue against their moral obligations to communities.

Among other things, lottery officials should redefine the 50 percent rule to exclude cigarette sales. (Oregon has no business encouraging people to destroy their lungs while simultaneously emptying their wallets.) The lottery also should enforce existing rules that would seem to prohibit the very type of clustering that has been allowed at Jantzen Beach and elsewhere.

The lottery should reconstitute a so-called citizens advisory group that was formed after the Jantzen Beach problem became visible a year ago. That group initially was appointed with only one true 'citizen' representative, and it has been dominated by people with a vested interest in the lottery's status quo. A more community-minded group should be formed - one that includes, for example, Hayden Island residents and representatives from Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, but excludes the owners of the specific lottery delis in question.

The lottery director and commissioners can make a positive difference simply by tightening the rules and enforcing the ones already on the books. But they also may need prodding from legislators who have the power to change state statutes that govern the lottery.

Reps. Tina Kotek of Portland and Carolyn Tomei of Milwaukie are correct to come to the defense of their communities by threatening to pass new lottery laws. Other legislators should take a hard look at how the lottery affects their communities and intensify pressure on lottery officials to curb the most apparent abuses.