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The Tavern Owners' Video Game Bluff 

Here's a dilemma we'd love to have: Say the state has put a machine in our home that spits out money at the rate of

Here's a dilemma we'd love to have: Say the state has put a machine in our home that spits out money at the rate of $70,000 a year. But later the state tells us it's strapped for cash and can only afford to let the machine dispense, say, $64,000 a year.

Our choice: Do we (A) settle for the $64,000, or (B) pitch a hissy fit and tell the state to take its machine and shove it?

The obviously logical answer would appear to be (A). But some tavern owners say they're leaning toward (B).

What it's all about is video lottery games and how big a slice the state takes out of them vs. the share the tavern owners get. When the games started in 1992 the owners got a hefty cut of 35%. But the commission has been reduced several times in the intervening 17 years, and now stands at 23.77%. And there's a chance the state Lottery Commission might cut it again next month.

Susan Castillo, the state superintendent of education, would like to see the owners' share drop to 15% - roughly 9% below the current figure. Since the average tavern owner who has the lottery machines now earns $70,000 a year from them, his take would fall to $63,700.

The tavern owners - as they have every time the state has proposed reducing their commission - are crying poor. Some, such as Westside Tavern's Ken Weston, have been reported as saying they might kick the video machines out of their bars.

Weston says the $70,000-a-year figure is deceptive because part of it is taxed and goes back to the state, and because there are expenses associated with having the machines - the cost of electricity to run them, security costs, maintenance and administrative costs.

These arguments look questionable. Sure, the take from the machines is taxed - but so is all other business income. And although we don't have Weston's books in front of us, we're skeptical that the other costs he cites take a very significant bite.

Video lottery machines provide an indirect benefit to Weston and other tavern owners too: People come to play them, and while playing them they presumably order a drink or two, maybe even a hamburger and fries.

We generally don't like video lottery games and other kinds of state-sponsored gambling; they amount to a sneaky hidden tax that falls mostly on middle- and low-income people. But since the games are there, and since their main purpose is to raise money for education and other state needs, not to enrich bar owners, it's legitimate in these recessionary times for the state to take a bigger share.

As for the tavern owners, they're entitled to reasonable compensation. But frankly we don't believe a slight cut in their commission will bankrupt them - and we think they're bluffing when they threaten to get rid of the machines. They have the right to plead their case with facts and logic, but this clumsy attempt at intimidation deserves THE BOOT.


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