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NDP's VLT flip-flop 

Out of office, he wanted a referendum on the machines, but now that Darrell Dexter is premier, he's addicted to VLT revenue.

Astonishing fact number one: Last year, gamblers in Nova Scotia pumped more than $708 million into Video Lottery Terminals, the equivalent of nearly $2 million a day. That info comes from the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation's annual report released last week. It shows that in the 2008/2009 financial year which ended in March, VLT betting increased by 5.3 percent over the year before. The provincial government's share of the VLT take rose to a tidy $100.7 million, a hefty six percent increase.

Astonishing fact number two: Nearly 60 percent of the gambling revenues the province took in last year came from VLTs. No wonder the government is so addicted to the steady flow of money from machines that critics have dubbed "the crack cocaine of gambling." No matter that problem gamblers lose jobs, homes and families. No matter that VLT habits lead to bankruptcy, suicide and crime. The province must have that $100 million!

But wait. That may have been so under the hard-hearted Tories who introduced VLT gambling to Nova Scotia in 1991. Or under the greed-driven Liberals who sharply increased the number of VLTs after they got elected in 1993. But a brand new, family-friendly NDP government will surely take a much dimmer view of machines that cause so much heartache. After all, as a provincial report pointed out last year, problem gambling rates are especially high among students, the unemployed and the disabled. The report noted that almost 40 percent of gambling losses came from the 6.1 percent of the population classified as at-risk or problem gamblers.

Surely an NDP government (unlike heartless Tories and Liberals) would not prey on the most vulnerable among us. After all, wasn't it NDP leader Darrell Dexter himself who called in 2005 for a binding, province-wide vote on VLTs? "The only people who have not been given a direct say about the legalization of VLTs in Nova Scotia are Nova Scotians themselves," Dexter declared. "Every NDP MLA was elected on a platform that committed our party to reducing the harm caused by VLTs, through reduced access to the machines, much better access to addiction services, and community control," he added.

OK. That was Darrell Dexter, leader of Her Majesty's fiercely loyal opposition. Now that DD is our newly minted premier, he suddenly sees no need for either a binding vote on VLTs or for reducing people's access to the machines. An official statement from the premier's office points out that starting in 2005, the Tories cut 1,000 VLTs (leaving about 2,200 in place), reduced VLT speeds, removed the stop button and required that the machines be turned off at midnight. Those Tory solutions, combined with gambling help lines and improved addiction services, seem to have magically solved our VLT problems, at least in the eyes of our new NDP premier.

The NDP statement continues: "During the campaign, the premier said that he does not support banning VLTs, but rather ensuring that appropriate help for those with gambling addictions is available." It suggests that banning VLTs might drive problem gamblers into unregulated betting on the internet. Yet provincial statistics show that less than one percent of Nova Scotians indulge in internet gambling. And most problem gamblers blame VLTs for their troubles. Some 47,000 adults in Nova Scotia are at risk for problem gambling, with about 19,000 classified as problem gamblers. Problem gamblers lost over 10 times more than non-problem gamblers, and more than two-thirds cited VLTs as their main gambling vice, according to provincial figures released last year.

Meanwhile, the money from VLTs keeps rolling into provincial coffers, while the Gaming Corp. reports that the province spends just seven percent of overall gambling revenues on problem gambling prevention, education, and treatment. Only a band-aid really, especially where VLTs are concerned. But like the Tories and Liberals before them, I hear the NDP cry, "Cha-ching! We must have that $100 million!"

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