The challenging and consequential debate about casino gaming in Massachusetts has resumed. The bill reported out of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies and the House Ways and Means Committee is, in large part, very similar to the bill voted on in the House of Representatives last session. After carefully studying the bill, learning all that I could about the experience of other states (both those that have and those that do not have casinos and/or slot machines), and after having my own judgments sharpened by contacts from and conversations with the voters who sent me to Beacon Hill, I voted “no” last session and voted “no” once again this session.
I have not done so lightly. For one, the Speaker of the House, Robert DeLeo, who I like, respect, and serve as a member of his leadership team, is the lead sponsor of the proposal and has made it clear that he has strong feelings about it. For another, I believe that the Chairman, Joseph Wagner, and the members of the Committee on Economic Development have given a great deal of careful thought to the bill. It is rooted in a thorough knowledge of the experience of other states and represents careful drafting of language on the myriad issues associated with bringing legalized gaming to the Commonwealth.
I just see things differently than they do.
I share their commitment to the jobs they seek to create. I just do not have their faith in their projections. That there will be short-term construction jobs is unquestionable, but I do not see the prospect for many permanent positions. After considering all the additional factors, I feel the price of any new jobs that would be created is too high.
I also do not subscribe to the rosy picture of new revenues for the Commonwealth. For one, there is increasing evidence that the market for casinos is – or soon will be – saturated. I am not sure we can count on the gaming locations this bill will create for anything close to the kinds of money that some anticipate. Some of the new gaming gains will also be offset by fewer dollars raised by the already-existing form of gambling in Massachusetts, the state lottery. Additionally, some, perhaps all too many, of the dollars spent at casinos will not be spent in the restaurants, theatres, and shops on the Main Streets of the towns that will host and be neighbors to this new industry. I fear that this industry will not grow the economy so much as reshape it in ways that, in my opinion, could and should be avoided. While the proposal has gained favor in part because of our currently weak economy, this new industry will do nothing to counter the impact of future economic cycles. Its fortunes will rise and fall with economic trends, simply adding to rather than offsetting the weight and consequences of the dynamic market.
That this new industry will attract and generate revenue from many who cannot afford to play the tempting but long odds of a big payoff is beyond question. In earmarking some of the anticipated revenue for services for compulsive gamblers, the bill acknowledges that some of our neighbors and family members will join their ranks. The social costs of casino-encouraged gambling include higher crime, bankruptcy, divorce, and suicide rates. I think we can do better than have our state’s budget dependent on gambling losses.
The bill, in addition to authorizing three destination casinos, also allows for the licensure of one slot machine parlor. These machines are not your grandfather’s one-armed bandits. They are programmed to addict. They will hook new gamblers and we will be hooked on the revenues from these predatory devices. Moreover, by allowing casino gaming and slot parlors for the first time in Massachusetts, we are guaranteeing that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the state’s sovereign Indian tribes will open their own gaming facilities, competing with and adding to the weighty consequences of the three sites authorized in the bill.
In the end, I am disappointed because I believe this bill will only help us avoid confronting difficult but critical debates about how we should raise revenue in the Commonwealth. Our current tax system does not provide the resources that we need. It is regressive, taxing the poorest among us the most. It is structurally unstable, resulting in the need to cut services in a down economy, just as our citizens need those services the most. Gambling will now be another piece of an unstable, regressive revenue system. To the extent it is successful, the lure of those dollars will further lull us into complacency and dull the passion for comprehensive revenue reform. I asked for the chairmanship of the legislature’s Committee on Revenue because I believe such reform is desperately needed. I see the casino vote as a setback for that effort.
More debate and a vote on this bill will soon follow in the Senate, and then perhaps again after the Governor reviews any bill that might arrive on his desk. The action of the House in endorsing gambling in Massachusetts is certainly not the panacea some hope it will be. The challenges of creating good jobs and a sustainable economy remain. The challenges of fixing our broken revenue system remain. I appreciate the many calls, letters, emails, and conversations offering thoughts on the casino debate that is now ahead of us, and look forward to your ideas about the challenges and opportunities to come.