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In the balance scales: Safety, addiction

Herald and News December 30, 2004

We hear a lot of talk about values these days. Oregonians face a significant values test this winter, and we're going to see just how our values play out.

On which do we place a higher value: driving on safe highways or preventing gambling addiction?

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has made his choice. It's for safe highways.

He's ordered the state gambling commission to approve video slot machines. He expects to get more than $30 million from the increased gambling activity. The additional money allowed him not to submit a budget that called for significant cuts in State Police patrols.

Without the extra money, Kulongoski said, troopers would have to be cut and some parts of the state would be unpatrolled for long stretches of time.

Let us be clear about what this choice entails.

The absence of highway patrols contributes to unsafe driving conditions. The more cops on the road, the slower and safer the flow of traffic. Over the long term, Oregon can expect to see a certain increment of traffic deaths resulting from the absence of troopers. Some of those dead will be people drunk or speeding. Others will be innocent victims.

Slot machines are addictive, and a certain percentage of people who gamble will get into deep trouble playing them. They will lose fortunes and careers. Innocent family members will be victims.

Which is worse? And if we as Oregonians are unwilling to make such a choice, is there an alternative?

Kulongoski's choice wasn't an easy one. He made it forthrightly, but he hasn't dealt explicitly with the consequences: We're going to need more addiction counselors and social workers to mitigate the human suffering slot machines will bring.

Now the Legislature must confront the question. It can, if it wishes, simply let Kulongoski's order and budget proposals stand. That's an easy way out. Or legislators can spend some time examining the consequences of further cuts in highway patrols and balancing those consequences against those of an increase in gambling addiction.

There are no easy alternatives to this choice.

It seems certain already that Oregon will cut access to health care for poor people, raise higher education tuition charges well above the rate of inflation, approve a budget for elementary and secondary education that will require more cuts in teaching staffs and make other tough cuts, such as eliminating a nursing training program, as Kulongoski's budget proposes.

Safe highways? Fewer gambling addicts? That's a test of values, and no Oregonian ought to be comfortable about the choice.





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