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Don't Bet the Farm That Gambling Will Come to Utah

Economy: State's strong Mormon culture has blocked efforts to legalize any type of gaming. A robust business climate doesn't hurt either.

May 05, 1996|MATTHEW BROWN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SALT LAKE CITY — Jon Freston would like to see betting on horse racing in this Mormon stronghold, but he's a realistic guy.

He tells this joke: Three bettors died and went to heaven. They met God, and asked if parimutuel betting would ever be allowed in Utah.

"Yes," replied the deity, "but not in my lifetime."

Today, 48 states allow some gambling. The others are Utah and Hawaii--though polls show more than 60% of Hawaiians favor a lottery, and lawmakers are considering legislation to establish parimutuel horse racing.

"Hawaii sooner or later will pass a gaming bill. It's only a matter of time. It makes so much sense there," said Randy Baker, a professor of gaming studies at the University of Nevada.

But Utah? "Utah is a different story," Baker acknowledged.

What are the odds that Utah might allow some form of gambling? Hint: There are long odds and there are Utah odds, and Utah odds are longer.

Utah gambling opponents cite the social problems associated with gambling. Plus, they can cite a robust economy--generating more than 47,000 new jobs last year--and a record surplus of tax dollars without the aid of a lottery, casinos or parimutuel tracks.

"Economies based on false principles of getting something for nothing don't prosper in the long term," said Gov. Mike Leavitt, sounding one of the many arguments grounded in the state's conservative Mormon culture.

That culture has quickly snuffed out attempts to introduce games of chance ranging from bingo fund-raisers to parimutuel wagering.

Since arriving in the Great Basin in the 1840s, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have let outsiders know gambling wasn't welcome here.

"Let a judge pass a decree that . . . a gambling saloon shall be established in our city, and we will give him the privilege to get out of the city as quickly as he can," Mormon leader Brigham Young preached in an 1866 sermon.

In the early 1970s, local police busted some Catholic nuns for operating a bingo game; vice officers have cited bars for holding betting pools on sporting events; voters soundly rejected a parimutuel proposal in 1992; and the state's attorney general recently warned against Internet betting.

With persistence, and sparing none of its most plentiful resource--money--the gaming industry has conquered powerful opponents before.

For example, gambling interests poured $11.5 million into their effort to get slot machines on Missouri riverboats and offered $20 million to two political consultants if they could land a casino license.

But Freston, a Mormon and racing-horse dealer who helped head the ill-fated 1992 effort in Utah, said the industry's vast resources are no match for the ensconced statewide network of Mormon congregations, to which 70% to 75% of Utah's people belong.

All it takes, Freston said, is for local Mormon bishops to read from the pulpit a statement from the church's governing First Presidency either supporting or opposing an issue they deem to be a moral one, and the majority is mobilized to carry out the directive.

"We tried to sell some fun on the weekends and help the horse-breeding industry; they preached the people would go to hell, so how do you fight that?" he asked.

To be sure, some Utahans seem willing to visit hell by way of neighboring states.

Utahans account for 90% of the attendance at the Wyoming Downs horse-racing track in nearby Evanston, Wyo. At the Quick Stop convenience store in Malad, Idaho, owner Bob Green said Utah residents buy 90% of the lottery tickets he sells annually.

And Utah license plates typically outnumber those from other states in casino parking lots in the Nevada border towns of Wendover and Mesquite.

Stop at those casinos and check out the lists of big winners, and you'll find a lot of people from Utah: Tom Steele of Ogden, $40,000; Dianne Ries of Layton, $15,029; Joyce Walker of Sandy, $25,000.

Utah is "a nice clean place. That's why we came here to Smutville," said Joe Kalodimos of Salt Lake City, visiting the Stateline Casino in West Wendover with his wife and mother on a recent weekday.

Utah doesn't need the revenue and shouldn't legalize gambling, said Kalodimos, a non-Mormon. "I haven't missed it. The state isn't hurting."

Judy Adams of Taylorsville and Fay Nicholl of Salt Lake City, both non-practicing Mormons, drove to West Wendover to play the slot machines. Both are in favor of horse betting and a Utah lottery. "We'll never get it, though," Nicholl said.

But neither wants to see casino gambling in Utah.

"That makes it too easy" for gamblers to develop problems, Adams said.

And there remain many who would hold the line against everything.

"I'm quite pleased Utah is the last bastion," said Rebecca Gardiner, a 42-year-old Mormon from Salt Lake City.

Gambling, she said, "goes against the Christian-Judeo ethic . . . it devalues work by making you believe you can get something for nothing."

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