Category Archives: Opinion

Opinion: “Gambling with other people’s money” (The Province, Sept. 3, 2009)

Gambling with other people’s money; Funding breakdown everyone’s business

by Gillian Burnett

In the frenzied runup to Tuesday’s bad-news budget, the Liberal government quietly sent out hundreds of ticking time bombs and retreated to the relative safety of their homes for the weekend.

Last Friday, dubbed “Black Friday” by the thousands of B.C. charities that depend on gaming revenues for their existence, Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for disbursing the money, sent out a memo. His message, delivered under the sunny “Best Place on Earth” logo, was to the point: Dear Community Organizations, We screwed up the numbers, so you know that cheque we said was in the mail? It isn’t.

The tone was brisk. Unapologetic. The gaming gravy train has ended, and in its place we’re funding, well, gravy. CommunityLINK, which supplies lunches to needy kids and was previously paid for by the education ministry, will be getting your money, in addition to projects supported by the B.C. Arts Council, also previously funded by the taxpayer.

Priorities have shifted, Coleman lectured, and community groups that the ministry deems expendable — environmental, adult sports groups, alumni associations, and especially “a number of arts and culture organizations” — are out of luck.

It got worse. That money hadn’t only been for future use. In most cases it had already been spent, based on formerly ironclad written guarantees that have simply been trashed by the officials who signed them.

Oh puh-lease, I hear some of our readers thinking. We’re all suffering, so why should I get upset about a bunch of fancy-pants artists when the alternative is to let kids go hungry?

Well, that’s exactly what Coleman wants you to think. That false comparison is calculated to distract from the heart of the issue: It’s not the government’s money to take away.

To understand why, we need to go back a few years.

In Canada, before there was “gaming” — a cuddly word that evokes family Scrabble nights — there was gambling.

And it was bad. So bad, in fact, that it was illegal for the first 100 years of Confederation. The only exemption was for charities, which ran lotteries, bingo halls and casinos, and reaped the profits.

Then, in 1969, a Criminal Code change allowed governments a foot in the door — but only when a worthy cause was involved. Charities were their ticket and their moral justification, and still are: Just look at the pages on the BCLC website trumpeting the motto “When you play, good things happen.”

Smelling easy money, the province, by the late 1990s, was soon kicking open that door, even while promising to set aside charities’ cut in a trust and ensure direct access to the funds. The contest between a goliath government and small, varied community interests had predictable results.

In 1997, when the province, in a reverse Robin Hood manoeuvre, tried to rob charities of $24 million to pay for its own “charitable” health and education services, the NDP government was taken to court. The following January, when then-deputy premier Dan Miller was ordered to give the money back by the Supreme Court, opposition leader Gordon Campbell summed up the decision best: “Mr. Miller had to give it back,” he declared. “It wasn’t his money. I don’t trust him, period. And I don’t think the charities should.”

In June 1999, the province signed agreements re-committing to their community partnerships. They pledged to consult the charities’ umbrella representative, the B.C. Association for Charitable Gaming (BCACG) regarding any proposed changes, and guaranteed a yearly minimum of $125 million with a view to committing fully one-third of ongoing net community casino revenue.

That was 10 years ago, when gaming revenue grossed B.C. about $525 million annually. Last year, net gaming revenue hit a high of $1.1 billion, yet the charities are getting $139 million, 11 per cent less than they got the year before. And the legitimate recipients still don’t know how much of that $139 million will be used by Coleman’s appointed illegitimate recipients.

“And yet somehow the government managed to find $39 million to promote the Olympics,” points out BCACG’s Executive Director Cheryl Ziola. The impact of the cuts is immeasurable, she says. “These cuts are going to affect hospices, daycares, playgrounds, you name it. In Prince Rupert alone there are 40 charitable organizations that rely on gaming funds to provide services.”

Most shocking of all, perhaps, is the absence of any attempt on the government’s part to minimize damage.

They could have taken away this money (that isn’t theirs to take) slowly and with warning. Instead, they knocked the door down and set fire to the furniture, killing some organizations and crippling others. Some groups had multi-year funding in place, only to be told they were broke.

Wednesday, by which time rumblings about potential lawsuits had no doubt reached the ears of government lawyers, Finance Minister Colin Hansen experienced a sudden (partial) change of heart: Our mistake, he said. We’ll honour those multi-year agreements after all, representing a reinvestment of $20 million over the next two years.

Reached for reaction, BCACG’s Cheryl Ziola said, “The fact is, they’re still not fulfilling their funding agreement, and we’re going to keep hammering on that.” Plus, she pointed out, they made this sudden decision with absolutely no consultation whatsoever.

What about those organizations that didn’t have a multi-year deal? Well, it’s their problem, along with their creditors, their laid-off employees, the venues they’d booked next season that will now sit empty — and, in many cases, the taxpayer, who would have seen a $1.38 return in tax revenue for every dollar invested in the arts. And keep in mind, these dollars aren’t coming out of taxes to start with.

In effect, the Liberals have handily dumped a portion of B.C.’s deficit onto the unsuspecting backs of the people in our communities — often volunteers — who make a daily, qualitative difference to all of our lives. All with money that isn’t theirs.

Just ask Gordon Campbell.

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Opinion: “Fuelling an addiction” (The Province, Aug. 21, 2009)

Op-ed: “Fuelling an addiction; government’s gambling with other people’s money”

by Gillian Burnett

The B.C. Lottery Corporation’s official motto is: “Know your limit, play within it,” and they insist they mean it.

Why, then, has the Lottery Corp. just announced it’s raising the weekly spending limit on its PlayNow.com website to $10,000?

You read that correctly: $10k. (Well, $9,999, if we’re splitting hairs.) Seems like a lot of money? Clearly BCLC agrees, as the weekly limit being replaced is a mere $120 — yup, you read that correctly, too — making for an increase of 8,333 per cent.

As Michael Smyth pointed out in these pages yesterday, you only need scratch the surface of this government-issued lottery ticket to see their coming payday.

Consider the following.

According to a Statistics Canada report released in late July and reported on by The Province, revenue from government-run gambling in all of Canada fell in 2008 for the first time in 16 years.

B.C., however, proved the exception to the rule: our net gambling income was up — to $1.09 billion for the year ending March 31. But that was still $19.3 million below the target, set before the recession took hold.

Indeed, just Monday it was reported that thousands of community groups across the province are in financial limbo as tens of millions in lottery funds have been frozen, subject to “comprehensive review.”

Meanwhile, casino operators, BCLC’s co-dependents for many years, have been issuing dire warnings about falling revenues since the recession was a gleam in the economy’s eye.

How can BCLC increase revenues at light speed and cut those pesky casinos out of its profits in one fell swoop? Online gambling.

How can they cash in on the exploding popularity of unregulated offshore gambling websites? Online gambling with fewer regulations.

Studies, though, point to two sobering facts: in a poor economy, people in desperate straits are more likely to take financial risks; and, online gamblers are statistically far more likely than other gamblers to develop an addiction.

The government’s own report, commissioned in 2003, supports these theories. Where the province estimates that 4.6 per cent of British Columbian gamblers are addicts, the “Problem Gambling Prevalence Study” estimated that 9.9 per cent of Internet gamblers have a moderate or severe problem. That one-in-10 figure was suggested long before Internet gambling became a mainstream phenomenon.

This from a Liberal government elected, in 2001, on a platform that included a straightforward objective: “Stop the expansion of gambling that has increased gambling addiction and put new strains on families.”

Fast-forward eight years, and those same families are straining just to get by.

There is some assistance on the way, though. In an interesting coincidence, less than two months ago BCLC announced the introduction of GameSense, a program designed to reach out to hard-core gamblers who might be put off by the tough, “Big-Brother-y” approach of existing programs, to use Lottery Corp. president Michael Greydon’s term.

An apt choice of words. What’s more Orwellian than a government that seeks to ban your choice of leisure activity? A government that regulates that activity to the clear and self-acknowledged detriment of its own citizens.

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Entertainment column: “Stars shun sequels for good reason” (The Province, Aug. 10, 2007)

“Stars shun sequels for good reason”

by Gillian Burnett

Oh, what a fickle mistress fame can be. Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr., who made “Show me the money!” famous in 1996’s Jerry Maguire, must have been in grave need of cash when he took on the role formerly known as Eddie Murphy’s in Daddy Day Camp, the sequel to Daddy Day Care that just landed in theatres with a resounding thud. In a nice kind of symmetry, Murphy just climbed out of his own slump to garner an Oscar nomination for Dreamgirls; maybe he thought Norbit was enough big-screen humiliation for one decade.

But Cuba Gooding is certainly not alone. There is a long, humbling tradition of sequels without stars — ahem, I mean sequels without their original stars. To wit:

Son of the Mask: This 2005 followup to 1996’s The Mask, featuring the rubber-featured Jim Carrey, “stars” Jamie Kennedy and received one of the lowest user ratings I’ve ever seen on the Internet Movie Database. (Two stars. That’s out of a possible 10.) Kennedy’s finest work can be seen in such classics as the recent Kickin’ It Old Skool. ‘Nuff said.

Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd. Jeff Daniels and (again) Jim Carrey are nowhere to be seen in this 2003 sequel to Dumb and Dumber. Derek Richardson and Eric Christian Olsen (exactly: who?) take on the roles of the teenage Harry and Lloyd in this forgettable flop. Here’s hoping the producers aren’t planning on a Dumb and Dumbest: When Harry Buried Lloyd.

Evan Almighty. Hmmm. Are you noticing a trend here? It seems that a rule has emerged: when Jim Carrey won’t go, just say no. Not even the hilarious Steve Carell could save this 2007 Waterworld of comedies from sinking.

Home Alone 3. Child star Macaulay Culkin wouldn’t touch this sequel, which came in 1997, five years after the success of the first two. (To be fair, at the time he was off developing a coke habit in response to his parents’ ugly wrangling over his fortune.) In fact, even John Hughes, who directed No. 2 and wrote all three, had the good sense not to direct the third, which cast Alex D. Linz in the starring role and boasted the official tagline, “It’s bad news for bad guys. Again.” Even the tagline knew there was nothing to see here.

Speed 2: Cruise Control. Keanu Reeves starred in Speed as a cop who has to save the passengers of a bus in which a bomb will explode if the bus goes below 50 m.p.h. (That’s about 80 km/h for Canadian actors.) The sequel stars Jason Patric as a cop who has to save the passengers of a cruise ship that will collide with an oil tanker … you get the picture. Sandra Bullock, however, had no such reservations about returning. And then she made Hope Floats.

Wild Things 2. Neve Campbell and Denise Richards’ upper torsos were the real stars of the first Wild Things (1998), whose ill-advised plot involved two high-school students framing their guidance counsellor for rape. Too bad Leila Arcieri and Susan Ward didn’t seek guidance before they signed on for the 2004 sequel.

Cruel Intentions 2 and 3. The first Cruel Intentions featured Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon, among other big names, not one of whom returned for the sequel. In fact, even the no-names who starred in No. 2 turned down No. 3. You know you’re in trouble when …

Batman Forever. Michael Keaton might have stunk up the joint a little as the caped crusader in Batman (1989) and a lot in Batman Returns (1992), but he was no sucker for punishment. Val Kilmer was a slightly more credible hero in 1995’s Batman Forever (not an apt title, in retrospect), but the pair who swept the Razzies in 1997, George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell as Batman and Robin, indelibly stained the franchise. It would be seven years before brave Christian Bale would attempt the role again, in Batman Begins.

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