Sunday, September 23, 2007

Look Who's Gamblin'...

Well it should not come as a total surprise to anybody paying attention for the last eight months that Governor Deval Patrick came out in support of legalized gambling in Massachusetts. Rather than stare down the legislature over excesses in the budget to fund his programs, which still largely remain vague and hard to decipher, he chose the supposed free money path. He believes that the state will yield $400 million from casinos in Massachusetts.

Now it is important to note that opposition to gambling casinos in Massachusetts is not entirely a moral issue or even social ills issue. For some it certainly is that. During a press conference at his home in January, Mayor Charles Ryan reiterated his opposition to gambling largely on these grounds. Thankfully, it is incredibly unlikely that the casino would be built any closer than Palmer anyway.

Another shocker was Mayoral hopeful Domenic Sarno's endorsement of the governor's plan, citing the improved revenue. However, Sarno, like the governor fails to fully grasp the impact of casinos.

Let's start with the moral/social issues. Casinos are a classic form of indirect regressive taxing. The lower and middle classes make up the bulk of gamblers. Unlike the state lottery, the government can have difficulty regulating the return to gamblers. In addition, while the lottery is designed ostensibly to make the state money, the house, if you will, is not a for-profit agency. In addition, it is not legal to go into debt to buy lottery tickets (there are ways around it, but its cumbersome). Casinos regularly open up "accounts" of "money" with which people can gamble. Moreover, in a time of foreclosures and skyrocketing tuition, is this the best way we can be encouraging our citizens to spend? Plus, the income gleaned from the casinos will inevitably be diverted to help pay for the increased social services necessary to serve compulsive gamblers and their families.

Before everybody gets all "But it works in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and Connecticut!" it is important to note the differences. Both Las Vegas and Atlantic City were built upon the gaming industry and in that vein have very different cultures as to how the gaming industry interacts with the population. In Vegas for example, the tourist and the locals do not typically gamble in the same place. Even so, the vice and social malaise associated with compulsive gamblers remains prevalent. Atlantic City despite not being a major population center, as Las Vegas is, exhibits this only yards away from the boardwalk.

Foxwoods and Mohegan, too, are different. Neither is located in a major population center in Connecticut. There is no Mass Transit to these places and millions of people are not only a few minutes drive away. The proposed casinos in Massachusetts, particularly the Boston Metro area one will be easily accessible very likely by both T and highway. Detroit is the only major US city without a previous gaming history (excluding New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina) with gambling in its immediate midst. Detroit's decision to allow gambling was unfortunately made under extreme financial duress. Its was far greater than Massachusetts' is now. The social impact of the casinos in Detroit is not yet fully known and Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Bethlehem, PA are also planning gambling establishments slated for 2008.

Finally, there is an opposition growing unlike the others. According to the Boston Globe, the Massachusetts Restaurant Association is mobilizing to oppose casinos. Reasonably fearing a threat from the new eateries and watering holes bound to pop up, the MRA hopes to portray casinos as only drawing business away from existing restaurants. The governor's estimate of $400 millions in revenue for the state includes ancillary income from restaurants, but fails, as the MRA notes, to take into account that some of that revenue is in fact being lost at restaurants not near casinos. The MRA also claims that some of the revenue may simply cease to exist as casinos are known to hand out free food and drinks to gamblers. That's money that both restaurateurs and the state will see simply evaporate!

Not surprisingly, Boston Mayor Tom Menino is behind the proposal. Ol' Mumbles Menino has been on a binge of bizarre and egotistical plans recently. First it was a mammoth office tower that goes more toward image than need. Then he wanted to move city hall into South Boston, neglecting the citizens who can't trace their lineage back to Boston's historic center of American-Hibernia (and in fact a great deal who can). Menino needs money to do these things so gambling revenues and a newly minted meals tax (which will hurt Boston as the 128 'burbs can already rival Boston's culinary edge) would be his meal ticket. No pun intended. So Menino will be able to sit in his South Boston office facing the casino at Suffolk Downs across the water with his back to his fellow citizens, who writhe in economic and social agony, while finding it difficult to register to vote. Bravisimo, Mr. Mayor.

This is hardly a done deal. Sen. President Therese Murray supports the governor's proposal albeit a bit tepidly. House Speaker Sal DiMasi is open to listening, but still opposing it on the record. The cynics say its only a matter of time (or money) before gambling comes to Massachusetts, but its far too early to place any bets on how this all pans out.

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