A plan from the Farside
Can more gambling save Nevada’s economic future? One activist says yes.
Activist David Farside, a bearded, long-haired, bespectacled man of 65, sits in the red-vinyl corner booth in Johnny Rockets at the Reno Hilton quietly outlining his hopes for solving Nevada’s budget crisis. His voice is soft, often inaudible against the keening, dinging and clanging slot machines.
His answer to the state budget crisis is not an instant fix. In fact, if legislators support the plan, it would take four years to implement. Since it is an amendment to the state constitution, the public would have to buy into it in coming elections.
His answer is simple. In two words: state lottery.
Though the idea didn’t originate with Farside, this may be one of his last great acts of activism. It’s obvious that the polio that struck him as a child is slowly getting the better of him. He is mostly confined to his electric wheelchair these days; it waits down the steps from the booth. He says he feels the progression of the disease in his chest sometimes, when it gets a little hard to breathe. That’s how polio kills: It slowly incapacitates the body’s nerves, and eventually the nerves that spark the lungs will stop working. That could come at any time, but Farside feels he’s been living on borrowed time, in some ways, for more than 40 years, so he seems at peace with the idea of endings.
The gears almost hum as Farside fires up his media machine, engineering stories in various media outlets, including the Reno Gazette-Journal and this one. He won’t have any trouble getting publicity, since the media love a winner.
Farside is an activist to be reckoned with. He started the citizen initiative that allowed residents to choose whether they wanted to install water meters 12 years ago. He also started the drive for Reno and Washoe County to receive 1 percent of the room tax. Sparks agreed to accept 1 percent of the room tax (the idea was that if all the jurisdictions accepted the same amount, none would have a competitive edge), as well, but then reneged on the agreement.
Farside filed successful grievances against former Sparks Mayor Bruce Breslow and former Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority President Phil Keene with the Nevada Commission on Ethics. He also led the charge to defeat S-1 and S-2 in Sparks, forcing Sparks’ government to be more accountable in how it spent its money.
In all his efforts, his only real loss was the Sparks refusal to accept 1 percent of the room tax. But that ain’t over ’til it’s over, either. He’s going to keep up the battle until Sparks officials keep their word.
“They’re tired of hearing it, and I’m tired of fighting it,” he says. “No, let me correct that; they’re tired of hearing it, but I’m never going to be tired of fighting it.”
Farside’s indomitable will could be a factor in getting a state lottery going in Nevada. The idea’s been around the block before, and the gambling industry has been against it in the past, convinced that it could cut into profits. Farside believes his proposal would assuage those fears, though, since it factors in a profit margin for casinos and the limited gambling operations that would sell the tickets.
But that’s getting ahead of the narrative; there are other aspects to the plan that are more important than the money that gambling could rake in.
First, Farside says, the lottery will be about balancing the state budget. The Governor’s Task Force on Tax Policy in Nevada is looking at ways to raise taxes. Farside believes that, before any tax is raised, other money generators need to be examined.
“The tax task force is considering a personal income tax, increasing the gross sales tax, increasing business taxes,” he says. “Before we look at any increase in taxes, business, personal or gaming, we need to look at alternatives.” The task force has looked at the revenues potentially raised with a lottery, but its findings will not be made public until after the November elections.The Web site of the Oregon lottery, www.oregonlottery.org, tells the story. Since the lottery began in 1985, more than $3 billion in profits has gone to public-education and economic-development programs throughout Oregon. During that same time, players have won more than $7.3 billion in prizes, and more than $1.5 billion has been paid to Oregon businesses for services and supplies needed to operate the lottery.
In the 2001-2003 biennium in Oregon, education was allotted $436 million; economic development got $149.2 million; parks and natural resources received $99 million, and the problem gamblers treatment fund took in $7.1 million, for a total of $691.3 million to state programs.
Oregon law requires that at least 50 percent of the lottery’s total annual sales be returned to the public in prizes. In the 2001 fiscal year, its lottery paid more than 64 percent of its game sales from Megabucks, Scratch-its, Powerball, Keno, Breakopens and Sports Action as prizes. People who won the various games racked up $921.4 million in 2001.
Obviously, there are other factors at work here, like Nevada’s tourist and gaming economy, which could affect the amounts played. But for argument’s sake, two-thirds of Oregon’s numbers, minus a similar percentage paid out in prizes, would make for a net of about $460.9 million per biennium for state programs.
Nevada would have the opportunity to craft the lottery in ways to avoid problems that other states would have. Farside promotes education getting the lion’s share, 80 percent, of the money. That’s about $276.5 million per year. He recommends that special-needs programs, such as prescription benefits for seniors or veterans’ services, would get 5 percent, or about $17.3 million. Another 5 percent would go to sales commissions. Lottery administration would get 5 to 8 percent to cover expenses, with a bit left over for other programs.
Those sales commission will also generate money for Nevada, asserts Farside. Since the sales would happen at places that already have slot machines, such as 7-Elevens, bars and casinos, this would be taxed as gross gaming revenue, about $1.1 million more for the state. Farside also says that seven out of 10 people who buy lottery tickets also buy other things, which would generate more money through sales tax increases.
“What I’m proposing for education is that it would be broken down by priorities—reduction in class size, increased salaries for present teachers, increased pay for new qualified teachers, further availability of computers, etc., etc,” he says.
Farside said he called Governor Guinn’s office to make an appointment with the governor to talk about the potential windfall of a state lottery. The Governor’s Office froze him out, suggesting he send a letter. But Farside doesn’t believe he’ll be sending a letter, preferring to work behind the scenes in ways that have worked for him in the past.
What Farside needs, he says, is an elected official to sponsor the bill at next year’s legislative session. It could happen; a lottery bill passed the Assembly in 2001.
“I tried to get to Governor Guinn, but he’s so insulated by his advisers and staff that I couldn’t get to him," the activist said, as he stirred his tea in the red-vinyl booth near the Reno Hilton’s race book. "I don’t know why the governor isn’t interested in a viable option from a citizen."