The term ‘public policy’ has several related meanings.
In the broadest sense, public policy refers to whatever governments choose to do or not to do.
It can also be thought of as legislative requirements and general principles that guide the actions of public officials.
Implicit in the concept of public policy is the idea that those actions protect and promote the public’s welfare.
Ideally, public policy is guided by the principle of impartiality, where no group’s interests are promoted over those of other groups.
But the making of public policy is anything but a benign, rational process guided by the goal of achieving the public good. Special interests, economic issues, and political considerations become elaborately involved in the process.
Some special interest groups are more successful than others in getting the attention of legislators because they have greater financial resources or political ‘clout’.
In the case of gambling, the formulation of public policy has been complicated by the fact that the government itself has become one of the groups with an economic interest in gambling (especially by virtue of operating lotteries).
The government discovered gambling as a source of public revenue and developed an interest in promoting it.
Consequently, the government cannot impartially assess the claims of other groups regarding the desirability of expanding or contracting legal gambling.
However, it was noted that there was a recurring ambivalence of Americans toward gambling – and it was reflected in public policy.
At the same time, governments have used gambling to raise money for public projects (from building ports to arming the Continental Army in the Colonial era) and to raise public revenues for all kinds of purposes in state-run lotteries since the early 1960s.
Moreover, public policy on gambling has been created from a number of sources – these include legislative actions, court rulings, administrative decisions of government agencies, and referenda and initiatives.
Legislative action refers to passing legislation to create state lotteries and authorizing state agencies to license dog and horse racetracks, operators of charitable bingo games, baccarat games, and casinos. In some cases, it includes passing legislation to prohibit various kinds of gambling.
Court rulings are another source of public policy. In recent years, court rulings have been particularly important regarding the kind of gambling that can take place on Indian reservation lands.
For example, in 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians that a tribe could offer any form of gambling legalized by the state in which the reservation was located and that the tribe, not the state, had the power to regulate that gambling.
In Administrative Decisions – decisions by agencies such as lottery boards and gaming commissions are another source of public policy.
For example, lottery boards have decided to add Keno games (in California) and video lottery terminals (in West Virginia). The Wisconsin Gaming Commission decided to allow inter-track wagering at dog tracks. This, in effect, created off-track betting and eliminated the need for explicit legislative action or a referendum.
The final sources of public policy on gambling are referenda and initiatives.
There are many causes of the electorate voting on both binding and advisory proposals that lead to the legalization and creation of gambling enterprises or that prohibit their establishment.
Examples include the creation of casino gambling in three mountain towns in Colorado and in Deadwood, South Dakota, and riverboat casinos in Iowa and Missouri.