Snake eyes for Coakley on casino referendum by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

Question for gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley: if you knew that the legitimacy of the casino repeal referendum would end up at the Supreme Judicial Court regardless of how you decided on its constitutionality and you’re supposedly fine with its being on the November ballot, why did you come down on the side of corporate interests rather than those of the people? So now you’re unceremoniously slapped down. A unanimous decision by the state’s highest court,   noting a constitutional presumption in favor of ballot access, described Coakley’s position as “peculiar” and “a departure from common sense.” (Note: pro casino candidate Steve Grossman, when asked if voters should have the right to vote on the issue,  dodged clarity by saying it was in the hands of the court.)

Now a law passed as part of a “Hail Mary” plan to save the state during the
Great Recession will be scrutinized in light of a growing economy with many more job creation options. As a Boston Globe editorial pointed out, there are provisions in the law (such as taking money from education to support horse racing) that were “drafted with something less than the public interest in mind.” Now those must stand up to scrutiny.

“It is what it is,”  Deval Patrick said limply of the outcome. The Governor, a key proponent of casinos, has already built revenues from licensing fees into the state budget, and all the gubernatorial candidates need to explain how they’d replace those revenues if the referendum passes.

To be sure, there are serious tradeoffs that need to be weighed, especially  by those who are not already committed to a position.

Candidates and voters must seriously face up to the issue of whether casinos are an appropriate economic policy for the Commonwealth.  While I sympathize with the plight of certain local communities that have embraced gambling (e.g., Springfield, Plainville), I still don’t think they make sense for Massachusetts.

According to Mass INC’s Commonwealth Magazine, Compulsive gamblers (willing to lose their homes, their families to their addiction) represent about a third of those who go to the casinos, and nearly two thirds of those whose compulsion centers on slot machines.  Those compulsions are an “integral part of the industry’s revenue model” not just an unfortunate byproduct of a day trip to family entertainment.  The casino industry could still be profitable if it were willing to build stringent safeguards, but this would mean less revenue for the state and for them.

Studies abound on the “success” of the state lottery, which has the highest per capita level of state lottery participation in the 50 states.  Yet $50 spent on scratch tickets yields a scant $9 in return to the regulars.  And given how the lottery undergirds local aid, is it right that the poorest communities (like Chelsea) are helping to support the wealthiest communities (like Wellesley or Newton)? Is Treasurer Steve Grossman, who oversees the lottery, proud of that?  Would any of the gubernatorial candidates try to change the formula?

The legislation is supposed to create  15,000 jobs at salaries, according to a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce study of $36,000 to $44,000 a year. For a family of four, that’s about 130 percent of poverty level and substantially below the $61,000 median income for a family of four.  Gambling industry students  and business watchdog groups doubt these claims. But even if true, is this the best we can do to promote sustainable economic growth?

Voters will also have to sort out in November the additional problem of how casinos suck the oxygen out of local businesses, especially restaurants and entertainment venues. They’ll also have to weigh the expected social costs in petty crimes like prostitution and check kiting.

Supporters will try to persuade voters with pictures of reclaiming gambling dollars now flowing from Massachusetts to Connecticut and of becoming a destination of choice for non-Massachusetts residents, but Connecticut revenues are now  less robust and the projections of non-resident inflow debatable .

Studies of the gambling industries in Wisconsin and Illinois (done by the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia) have found the net economic impact to range from “a wash” to negative.  Obviously studies underwritten by the gambling industry paint a different picture.  Like choosing phrases from the Bible, you can find a study to support your predilection.  In the end, deciding how to vote on the repeal may depend on your gut instincts.  Mine still tell me No to casinos.  They’re not worth the risk.

I welcome your comments in the section below.