Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rolling the Dice

Yesterday, I returned from out-of-state to find that the Governor has submitted a plan to allow three casinos in Massachusetts. I'm not particularly bothered by gambling, though I will admit that if opening a casino in the Boston area ends up closing down the Keno parlors in my neighborhood, I will not shed a tear. Anything that causes fewer discarded scratch-off tickets to end up in my driveway can't be all bad. Indeed, I think in the short term these casinos would be a boon -- there's the up-front licensing fees, the construction jobs, and once they're built, the casino jobs themselves. I'm less convinced of the ongoing revenue that the casinos would provide the state, these large companies all seem to have a way of cheating the state out of taxes, but on balance the plan the Governor has put forward is a sensible way to bring casino gambling to the state.

The bigger question is whether we even want to bring gaming to Massachusetts. A majority of residents polled usually support it (58% percent most recently). That said, I imagine that the results would be different if residents were asked whether they wanted a casino in their own town. I do think, however, that those who say that casinos would "change the character" of Massachusetts for the worse are engaging in a bit of hyperbole. A couple of resort casinos aren't going to turn Massachusetts into Nevada. Inevitably, the places that host the casinos will change, but the impact of any resorts on the state as a whole will be small. The bigger question is whether you can control the genie once it's out of the bottle.

Of course, it would be silly to ignore the social ills that seem to come hand-in-hand with casino gambling. The advantage of the resort-style casinos that the Governor is proposing is that many of the tourists coming to these resorts will take the cost of these ills and costs back home with them. That would not generally be the case if the state just, for example, let Suffolk Downs put up slot machines. The big disadvantage of a resort-style casino, however, is that the economic benefits are not generally felt in the surrounding area. A casino's interest is to keep you on their property, close to the gambling floor, and never more than a few feet away from a slot machine. If you leave the grounds to go to a neighborhood restaurant, they've lost that potential revenue. So, while a resort casino may bring more tourists to an area, the number of visitors to local businesses is likely to decrease. This is what makes me very skeptical of any plan to revitalize New Bedford with a casino.

It seems to me that if someone fritters all of their money away on gambling, it's no different than if they had maxed out all their credit cards on designer clothes, electronics, or Faberge eggs. Is sitting in front of a slot machine all day really any different than sitting in a Keno parlor (now legal) or the track (also legal) or day trading on the stock market? So, yes, while I'm sympathetic to the idea that compulsive gambling will increase if we have casinos, it seems to me that anyone with a bus pass or an Internet connection can already do all the gambling they want. Frankly, I'm more concerned about the side industries that flourish along with casinos -- loan sharking, prostitution, money laundering, and other crimes -- not to mention the inevitable corruption that accompanies large sums of money changing hands. I think the Governor is being a little naive when he says that we're going to tackle those problems better than anyone else ever has.

What bothers me is the pattern the Governor seems to be following on these big decisions. For both his casino proposal and the budget, Gov. Patrick went into seclusion for weeks and then emerged with a fully-formed policy. Sure, he sought council from legislative leaders, from advisors and commissions, etc, but I never thought that they were the "We" in "Together we can". It's worrisome to me that the Governor had more inauguration parties than public meetings on expanded gaming. In the time after his election, Patrick often talked about how he wanted to convert his grassroots organization into a vehicle for grassroots governing. One way to do that would have been to include the grassroots in his decision-making process.