Gaming grant review long overdue

Governments love charities as props whenever they want to expand gambling.

Governments love charities as props whenever they want to expand gambling.

They use them to legitimize what is, overall, a destructive industry. As Gordon Campbell said, before he launched the biggest gambling expansion in B.C.’s history, the only way governments make money from gambling is by creating losers. The B.C. government shouldn’t be creating a province of losers, he said.

Governments – Socred, NDP, Liberal – always used the fact that charities get a share of gambling revenues to justify new ways of plucking the public’s wallets.

Once the plan is in place, they begin to forget about the charities and grab more and more cash for their own revenues.

There are periodic backlashes. One of the biggest came in 2009, when the government chopped grants to non-profits around the province by 23 per cent. The pool of money went from $156 million to $120 million without warning, consultation or, apparently, a whole lot of thought.

When Christy Clark took over as premier, she added $15 million to last year’s grants. But this year, it’s once again cut to $120 million.

Clark announced a review of the gambling grants Tuesday, to be headed by Skip Triplett, a consultant and former college president. He’s supposed to consult around the province and report by Oct. 31 on better ways of doing the grants.

He is to look at everything – the levels of funding, the criteria, the application process.

The review is overdue. Charities have been getting pushed around on gambling revenue since at least the 1970s.

They originally sold lottery tickets in the province, earning commission on the sales that supported their activities. The government pushed them out to make more money.

They ran casinos and bingos, but were shoved out of those activities as well, with the promise that their revenues would be protected. That sparked a lot of fighting when the promise was broken. In 1997, the association representing non-profits that had been involved in gambling signed an agreement with government guaranteeing them 33 per cent of gambling revenues.

If the deal had been kept, charities would be getting about $400 million a year today, not $120 million.

But the Liberals said they wouldn’t honour the written agreement.

This year, the government expects to make about $1.2 billion from gambling – lotteries, casinos and online betting. (Which works out to an astonishing $265 in gambling losses for every man, woman and child in the province.)

Non-profits will get $120 million from gambling grants. Communities that have casinos and gambling centres will share $82 million, an incentive to encourage them to accept businesses unpopular with many residents.

And the government will keep the rest – about $1 billion.

The grants are vital to most of the approximately 6,000 organizations that get some funding under the program.

School parent advisory councils get $20 per student, for example. Ski patrols, community youth programs, patient support groups, arts organizations – the list is long. The average grant is about $20,000.

The money is never their sole source of income. They fundraise on top of the contributions. But the grants provide a critical support.

There are always grants that could be questioned, by at least some people. But a closer look generally finds the groups are doing useful work.

The review could be useful as well, though many of the needed improvements to the program are obvious. The funding is almost always year-to-year, for example. Multi-year agreements – assuming outcomes are met – would allow much better planning.

The grant criteria are subject to arbitrary changes at any time. When the government chopped grants in 2009, for example, it took particular aim at grants to arts organizations.

The review should be helpful. The grants are part of the justification for expanding gambling. They make a significant difference in communities across the province. It’s past time for a proper policy.

Footnote: It’s puzzling that MLAs couldn’t have done much of this work. The legislature rarely sits and they are supposed to be aware of the opinions of people in their constituencies. At a minimum, they could have reduced the need for provincewide consultations.