Thursday, September 29, 2011

Casinos Wagging the Legislature

They just can't help themselves. While the bluster and posturing over casinos in MA rule our state house, the corruption queue is already crowded. For whatever good remains from Gov. Deval Patrick's tenure, this will be his stigma, his disgrace.

In a telling coincidence, just as the legislators were guaranteeing that gambling interests could buy them, a few hundred yards away, a casinos expert was explaining the only ways to do this right.

As a disclaimer, I'm no fan of casinos. Here and at Left Ahead, I've written and spoken against them. This week's LA show by Ryan Adams and me covers this again.

Down on Tremont St. at a Suffolk Law Rappaport Center round table on gambling, William Eadington sketched the wrong ways and best practices to gambling planning and regulation. We're doing it wrong so far and look headed further down that path.

The UNR professor has made a career of studying gambling, written numerous books and studies on casinos and addiction, and analyzed the devil out of the subject. Other than being a strong advocate for the gambling addicted, he is agnostic about casinos. He sees them as current reality (half of our states have them as well as many foreign cities and countries) and when a jurisdiction legalizes them, his concern is being smart about it.

We aren't. By his criteria, we are already blowing one of the two main rules. We don't have a system that will guarantee integrity and we haven't figured out what we want from casinos. We haven't even legalized it yet and we are already in trouble.

Eadington's message includes:
  • Don't advance without defining and prioritizing what you expect from allowing casinos
  • Have a gaming commission planning, implementing and regulating casinos with only the highest integrity and greatest disinterest among its members
  • Spend the years gathering proposals and picking those that meet your goals long before choosing a site or specific developer
To illustrate how pathetically we are failing here, consider yesterday's decision in Senate debates to reject member Jamie Eldridge's minimalist amendment requiring a five-year waiting period after leaving the legislature before being employed by casino interests. Instead, the approved amendment is for a meaningless one-year ban. Today;'s Globe editorial slamming this intended institutionalization of a revolving door for legislators is spot on. Have we learned nothing from the indictments and jail sentences for corruption?

For casino goals, Eadington compared good and bad implementations in the U.S. and beyond. He made it plain that expecting them to solve the jurisdiction's financial problems is foolish and won't happen.

He did point to some smart goals that work well and noted that each took very different paths to implementation related to the priorities. For one, Pennsylvania decided it wanted to maximize tax revenue and set a high rate on winnings. It ended up doing that with only a few casinos.

In contrast, Singapore started with a prime minister very opposed to gambling, one who came around after many years admitting it was the way of the 21st century and that they had to do it right. There, they required a request for concept from future bidders and carefully considered what the resulting sites would mean. In a six-year process, they went with a majestic $5 billion plus resort that would bring tourists in for vacations, not just a gambling fix. Their laws let them exclude problem gamblers, felons and others, as well as charging nationals $100 to walk in the door ($2,000 a year). They extract a much lower, tiered tax on winnings. Their implementation has truly made this a destination, not preyed on locals, and been a huge boost to the economy. Melbourne acted similarly and revitalized a massive slum area in the process.

Here, so far there is no indication that we intend to do this right or that we are capable of that. The legislature has already shown as a body that it has self-interest at heart. The siting proposals so far seem intended to suck money from locals, not create destinations for vacations for tourists. We're about the slots and quick-trip gambling that is so destructive to local economies and residents.

On this path, the likelihood will be short-term construction jobs, pissant service jobs added in the future, and most profits going out of state and maybe out of country to the gambling corporations. Once we enable casinos, there is no way to retreat. We have a single shot at going this right. No one from the Patrick administration or either house seems to be aiming.


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