Friday, August 19, 2011

Be careful what you wish for around gaming grants

When the New Democrats first turned aggressive about gambling in the mid-1990s, they knew they had to tread lightly.
The public was nervous, as were B.C. charities. With their long history of running bingos, special-event casinos, poker nights and raffles to fund community services, they were worried about government’s plans to turn gambling into a new provincial revenue stream.
The charities put up quite a fight in the late 1990s. But despite those valiant efforts, it’s pretty obvious in 2011 who has won this battle.
When a group of the charities formed the B.C. Association of Charitable Gambling and signed a memorandum of understanding with the province in 1999, charities were guaranteed a third of the pot for distribution as grants to non-profits doing good community work.
That lasted about as long as it took for the government of the day and every government since then to forget that there ever was such an arrangement. Twelve years later, just 12 per cent of net revenues are distributed as grants, and earnings from charity-run gaming events are down more than 60 per cent.
Gaming grossed a record $2 billion in the last fiscal year. Just $159 million went to non-profits, the smallest dollar amount in 10 years.
There’s a review of the community gaming grant process underway in B.C. right now, led by former Kwantlen College president Skip Triplett. He’s looking to hear from people on how they think gaming revenue should be used, and what kinds of non-profit groups should get priority. 
It’s not going to be one of those things that will catch much public attention. But I know of at least 6,000 B.C. non-profits that will be riveted. Gaming has become the go-to funding source for community groups in this decade of social famine. They rely heavily on those year-to-year grants for thousands of community services, from food banks and youth outreach services to sports camps for kids with disabilities.
Flipping through the years of gaming data on the Public Safety and Solicitor General’s Web site, I don’t know what to hope for from Triplett’s report, due Oct. 31.
Should we root for a larger share of gaming revenue to go to non-profits? That sounds like a good thing, until you get to thinking about how that could play out.
The province might, for instance, take that to mean that all other avenues of government funding to community groups could be reduced now that charitable groups were being given a larger share of gaming dollars. The current government has been particularly bloody-minded when it comes to cutting the legs out from under community services.
Equally disturbing is the prospect of charities growing so dependent on gaming revenue that they get excited about ways to “grow the business” so they can earn even more.
That’s the position municipalities now find themselves in after government cleverly started cutting them into the profits as a bribe for allowing a casino within their borders.
For community groups, that level of hypocrisy just might be too much. Some are far too familiar with the impact of problem gambling on people’s lives, a not-uncommon scenario on the front lines of B.C.’s social problems.
That’s the thing about gambling as a government revenue stream. We tell ourselves it’s all about happy tourists flooding into our towns and cities for a weekend of fun gambling, but most gambling dollars come straight out of the pockets of British Columbians, many of whom can’t afford to give them up.
Or Triplett could decide after his 14-community tour of B.C. that non-profits shouldn’t have any claim on gaming funds, and that all the money should go into - health care, say, or debt reduction.
Alas, that would be disastrous in a whole other way. Our community services have been left too long to fill in program gaps with gambling revenue to be able to take a hit like that. Gaming grants are the threads holding together an increasingly frayed social safety net.
Triplett wants to hear from British Columbians about their priorities for gambling revenue. I hope he knows what a loaded question that is.
Community groups are already being pitted against each other in a struggle for most-worthy status for the purpose of gaming grants. If there were ever “frill” programs in the mix, they’re long gone.
We’re now talking services for foster kids versus elementary-school sports groups. Parent Advisory Committees against community theatre. Disabled youth against impoverished women. Good luck, Mr. Triplett.
Please take this rare opportunity to share your opinion on community gaming grants. If we have to have government-run gambling, let’s at least help government put more thought into how we use the money. 


David Bratzer said...
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David Bratzer said...

Great column about the gaming grants, Jody. I've created a Facebook event page to rally participation in the forum on September 8: