Is the nation’s “best” casino policy good enough? by Marjorie Arons-Barron
Massachusetts is officially a casino state. Yesterday at two p.m. a slots parlor opened to the public in Plainville. Penn National reportedly spent $250 million to build and start up the facility, the first to bring Las Vegas to the Bay State. It could bring between $86m and $100m a year in state revenues and have some 500 employees. And we are told there will be more bountiful benefits.
Yesterday, Gaming Commission Chair Steve Crosby outlined to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce why this state’s casino policy is the best in the country. It was a tightly controlled presentation . Outgoing CEO Paul Guzzi took just one question from the audience, one that got lost in the praise the questioner lavished on Guzzi’s tenure at the helm of the GBCC.
In 2018, MGM’s $800 million dream factory will open in Springfield, “the biggest ever construction project in Western Massachusetts,” Crosby said, noting it’s a mixed use development with housing, retail, a skating rink and many other amenities. Also in 2018, Wynn Resort’s $1.7 billion casino is slated to open in Everett (unless, of course, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh wins against Steve Wynn in court). It will be “the biggest single phase project in the history of Massachusetts,” Crosby said, and this “monster project” is expected to generate between $175 million and $205 million in annual revenue for the Commonwealth. Every month of delay, he said, costs Massachusetts between $15m and $18m. But there’s still the challenge of figuring out the longstanding traffic gridlock in Sullivan Square, no small feat.
And there’s more. Before the commission are two more applications – one from New Bedford and one from Brockton – for a third casino, that in the third sector, expected to yield between $86m and $100m a year. That’s the region, by the way, that the Wampanoag Indians may try to build a fourth, one which would not yield benefits for the state. (The Wampanoags are awaiting a land trust decision in Taunton.) No one knows whether they will get that determination, when it would occur and to what extent it would be tied up in court for years.)
Given that gambling is now part of the Massachusetts economy (yes, yes, with its concomitant restaurants, hotels and other amenities), Crosby sought to reassure his audience that ours is the best designed gambling law in the country. The Commission is independent. Local communities get to say no (look how well that worked in East Boston, which said no and now faces a casino neighbor in its own backyard, with the revenues accorded a surrounding community rather than a host community.) Of course, the surrounding community can negotiate mitigation arrangements (ask Boston Mayor Marty Walsh how well that’s working with Steve Wynn.) Other businesses can seek mitigation if there are “unanticipated impacts.” But weren’t adverse impacts always anticipated?
State law makes a commitment to research the social problems that come with gambling, starting with creating a pre-casino data base on issues like problem gambling, traffic and more. And finally, there will be between $15 million and $20 million a year to deal with problem gambling (an amount Crosby says is 25-35 percent of what is spent nationwide each year. The Gaming Commission will partner with the Public Health Department to respond to problem gamblers. This has always struck me as odd, the idea that you’d worsen a serious social problem but it’s okay because there’s money in the kitty to treat it. Plus, one need look no further than the law directing tobacco tax revenues to anti-smoking campaigns to know how, if state funds are tight, those supposedly dedicated funds can and will be diverted elsewhere.
There remains a concern that legalizing casino gambling will cannibalize the state lottery, jeopardizing local aid. Crosby acknowledges there could be a drop in lottery participation of perhaps as much as four percent, but, given the plan to commit $85m-$120m in casino revenues for local aid annually, he says the net impact on cities and towns will be a positive one.
Crosby is an accomplished public servant. He is definitely committed to transparency and fairness. But he himself noted that casino gambling is one of the most complicated (and controversial) public policy projects in the history of the Commonwealth. He is certain that, with all the moving parts and significant initiatives, we are a veritable petri dish for figuring things out. This is not necessarily reassuring. Notwithstanding the anticipated problems and unanticipated consequences, Crosby believes casinos will be a transformational success for Massachusetts. I wouldn’t bet on it.
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