Casino gambling may not solve all of the fiscal challenges facing Massachusetts, but it is the best idea currently on the table. And Governor Deval Patrick seems determined to maximize its advantages.
Patrick’s plan to license three high-end casinos across the state is designed to inject $2 billion into the economy over the next decade and to create 20,000 new jobs. As critics of the plan mount their attacks, the public should keep this question in mind: what do casino foes suggest instead of gaming? Higher taxes? Fewer services? Those are not realistic options.
After the state creates a regulatory superstructure for casinos, beefs up police in the communities where they are to be built, and bolsters social services for the manageable increase in societal problems that are known to follow any expansion of gambling, an annual amount of approximately $400 million will be made available for long-delayed projects, such as repairing the Commonwealth’s crumbling infrastructure. On top of that cash flow, an additional $600 to $900 million will be generated by the auction of 10-year gaming licenses. As time goes on, reasonable objections will no doubt arise in connection with these projections. But as of today, the game plan appears as sound as it is bold.
Considered as a piece of political craftsmanship, Patrick’s proposal is particularly shrewd. It pressures the Wampanoag Indians to throw in their lot with the state, allowing them to develop a casino now and in such a way that would benefit Massachusetts’s taxpayers more than if the tribe were to wait for federal approval to build outside of Patrick’s proposed structure.
In fact, the Wampanoags would need the approval of the US government if they chose to build on their recently purchased Middleborough site, since it is not traditional tribal land. There was a time when the Wampanoags might have been able to count on the government’s rubber stamp, but those days are over. The Bush administration has placed a moratorium on such requests for the remainder of its time in office. That means that if the tribe chooses to wait for a new White House occupant, rather than to accept the promise of a license, it will be gambling with future returns worth mega millions.
As strong and as sensible as Patrick’s proposal appears, we should still expect heated debate and stiff opposition on Beacon Hill. Get ready for the argument that casino jobs are not good ones. That’s nonsense. First of all, new casino jobs are better than no new jobs. And new traditional manufacturing jobs are just not an option in this state, at least in any meaningful numbers. In fact, high-paying blue-collar jobs are expected to remain static at best, whether or not Massachusetts casinos are built. But the hospitality industry — and that is how casino should be viewed — has a proven track record of providing good jobs.
Will all of these casino jobs be great? No. But a lot of them will. Why, after all, are low- to middle-level jobs at facilities such as Boston’s new convention center considered socially acceptable while those at a casino are not? One answer is certainly snobbery. And you can be sure that one group not looking down at these new jobs is the unions.
Massachusetts has had state-sponsored gambling in the form of the lottery for 36 years. Despite any alleged stigma, Harvard and MIT have not left for greener pastures, the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood are thriving, the Institute of Contemporary Arts has built new headquarters to international applause, and the Museum of Fine Arts is moving vigorously ahead with its planned expansion. This, of course, is just an exaggerated way of saying that those who worry about what casinos will do to the fabric of Massachusetts’s culture are, well, just exaggerating fears.
What is not exaggerated is the possibility of recapturing the $800 million to $1 billion that researchers estimate Bay State residents spend each year gambling in Rhode Island and Connecticut. That Patrick’s casino plan would recycle the windfall into the local economy should be the foundation on which the merits of the plan are debated.
Aside from a failure of political imagination to grasp the opportunity that Patrick’s plan presents, another hazard is on the horizon: racetrack owners. For reasons of understandable self-preservation, local tracks will try to muscle in and snag a piece of the gambling action. The legislature would be wise to resist this.
Properly regulated casinos offer a practical solution to a practical set of political problems. It would be imprudent to dilute the potential impact of Patrick’s plan by making side bets on slots in tracks that are probably no longer economically viable.