Gambling’s toll obscured in Minn. stadium pushQuarter by quarter, Randy Ringaman incessantly fed the casino slot machines and numbly nourished a gambling addiction that drained his nest egg, jeopardized his home and nearly cost him his life.
VADNAIS HEIGHTS, Minn. (AP) — Quarter by quarter, Randy Ringaman incessantly fed the casino slot machines and numbly nourished a gambling addiction that drained his nest egg, jeopardized his home and nearly cost him his life.
Now the retired pharmaceutical worker watches with alarm as Minnesota lawmakers eye a raft of expanded gambling options as a way to pay for a new Vikings football stadium. While stadium plan sponsors see a way to raise hundreds of millions of dollars without general tax hikes, Ringaman is part of a competing chorus singing the ills of gambling as anything but pain-free.
His own addiction started innocently enough, playing pull-tabs with friends at a neighborhood bar. Later it escalated to nearly daily casino trips. Rock bottom came on Feb. 29, 2004 when Ringaman swallowed a bottle of pills only to be discovered by his wife, whom he begged not to call an ambulance.
“I purposely did it on Leap Year because that way nobody would have to think about me except every four years,” the 65-year-old recounted recently from the basement of a suburban St. Paul home he refinanced three times to stay on top of his gambling debts.
In recent weeks, the Vikings’ two chief legislative allies — Sen. Julie Rosen and Rep. Morrie Lanning, both Republicans — affirmed that expanded gambling revenue is likely to be a financial centerpiece of a stadium funding bill they could unveil next month. Gambling proposals are the subject of an upcoming hearing.
The Vikings are seeking up to $650 million in state money to help build a replacement to the Metrodome, with the total price tag likely to fly north of $1 billion.
With general tax increases an impossible sell at the Capitol these days, stadium supporters see gambling as the path of least resistance. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is on board, disappointing fellow liberals who have seen him as an ally in pursuit of social justice.
“In a democracy, a free society, people get to choose what they want to spend their money on,” Dayton told The Associated Press earlier this month when asked whether he was concerned that gambling could fall hardest on people of modest means. “That’s why people work, is to have disposable income they can use for whatever entertainment or social activity they choose.”
State lawmakers are mulling a menu of new gambling options: allowing bars and restaurants to upgrade their pull-tab offerings to an electronic version of the game; authorizing two Twin Cities-area horse-racing tracks to install 2,000 video slot machines each; or letting a Minneapolis real estate developer open a brand new casino in that city’s downtown. The state’s cut would come through taxes on the gambling proceeds or licensing fees.
All three ideas potentially offer enough new revenue to fund the state’s stadium share; the latter two proposals would likely leave money to spare for other priorities.
Backers of all three proposals will get a chance to make their pitch directly to lawmakers at the Capitol Tuesday, when two Senate committees hold a hearing on stadium financing options.
Proposals to expand gambling are nothing new at the Capitol, and tapping such revenue to help build a football stadium is not a fresh idea either. But it took on new life in recent week, thanks to Dayton’s vocal backing of the Vikings’ stadium push and to fears the team could leave Minnesota when its Metrodome lease expires at season’s end.
Previous efforts have met resistance from an eclectic coalition of casino-owning Indian tribes, religious and social advocacy groups and others who frown on state reliance on gambling dollars for any purpose.
“We think the social costs definitely outweigh any benefits,” said Tom Prichard, president of the conservative Minnesota Family Council. “It encourages indebtedness, family problems. You’re really targeting a narrow range of people who do a significant amount of the gambling.”
Experts on compulsive gambling said there’s no proven link between greater gambling options and increases in the number of compulsive gamblers, which is pegged at 1 to 3 percent of adults. At the same time, Don Feeney, research director at the Minnesota State Lottery, said it’s “intuitive that availability and addiction go hand in hand.”
Minnesota currently spends $2.2 million a year on problem gambling treatment, funded by state lottery proceeds. Wealthy, casino-owning tribes like the Shakopee Mdewakanton also donate to such programs.
Ringaman first sought treatment for his own gambling compulsions in the early 1990s, but had a hard time taking it seriously. Over the years, he shifted from playing pull-tabs with friends after work, to playing alone nearly every night, then to trips to the casino once a week or so, to multiple casino trips per week.
For a while his wife joined him, and he learned a trick that convinced her he was uncommonly lucky: “She’d be on a slot machine and losing, so I’d point to the other side of the room and say, ‘Why don’t you go try over there?’ She’d leave, and I’d run to the cash machine and take out a couple more twenties. When she came back, I’d say, ‘Look, I won!”
Ringaman lost memories of family milestones and holidays — “I spent so many Thanksgiving and Christmas get-togethers just thinking about when I’d next get to gamble.” Besides the home refinancing, Ringaman amassed credit card debts and raided his retirement fund. The suicide attempt came when he started to think about cashing out his 401(k) entirely, knowing he and his wife would be wrecked for good.
After his wife thwarted that February attempt, Ringaman went back to treatment and she took control of their finances. But she didn’t know he was expecting a work profit-sharing check.
“That was the end of April,” Ringaman said. “I went one more time, and the suicidal thoughts came right back. That’s when it finally bothered me enough to go really seek help. And that was the last time.”
Today, Ringaman serves on the board of directors for the Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance, funded by state treatment dollars. He said he’s not anti-gambling. But, asked what he thought of the state using gambling money to pay for wish-list items like a stadium, he had a harsh appraisal.
“Geez, I did that same thing. When I did win, I would buy electronics, jewelry for the wife,” Ringaman said. “I don’t see a difference. I think our state has a gambling problem. I think our country has a gambling problem.”