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Between the Lines: We've Heard It All Before

The latest push for casinos is hardly new and improved.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

A year and half into a staggering recession, Massachusetts is like a traveler stranded in a desert without food or water, hoping against hope to make it out of the wasteland to an oasis on the distant horizon.

Through eyes bleary with heat exhaustion and dehydration, we feel a sudden relief from the sun's brutal rays: a shadow that briefly envelops us, then disappears. We pay no heed to the menacing cries coming from the shadow. We don't even notice its razor-sharp talons. We wish only for the shade it provides to return.

OK, so maybe my metaphor is a tad over the top. After all, the effort to legalize casino gambling in Massachusetts has gone on uninterrupted for nearly two decades. It may seem that the casino issue looms larger—casts a bigger shadow, if you will—when the economy is in tatters, when unemployment is high and the state is low on cash, but the truth is, the issue never really goes away. In good times and in bad, there are always politicians who are willing to second-guess the legislative decisions made only a few years before to forego casino gaming as a means of economic development.

Of course, you'd think that the pols who keep bringing it up—say, Gov. Deval Patrick or Boston mayor Tom Menino—would need to demonstrate that something significant has changed since we considered and rejected casinos the last time. You'd think that the folks at the Massachusetts Coalition for Jobs and Growth, which is aggressively pushing for the licensing of three resort casinos hard on the heels of the Legislature's rejecting a similar plan hatched by Gov. Patrick in 2007, would have to show how this year's casino plan is substantially different and better than those we've seen and scuttled in the past.

Alas, the plan hasn't changed so much as the economic circumstance into which it is being launched and by which it is being rationalized. In other words, since Deval Patrick's failed casino gambit, the economy has only gotten worse. The bad economy merely reenergizes the pro-casino forces, merely makes them more incredulous that we don't accept gambling as our fiscal salvation.

No doubt, the casino plans launched this year, last year, five years ago, a decade ago, all promised tax revenue and jobs. In every case, proponents point to places around the globe where legal gambling provides tax revenue and jobs.

So why haven't we taken the leap? Is our opposition merely the vestigial impulse of our native Puritanism? Or do we see that casino gambling, for all its potential benefits, has a big downside to the overall economy, to communities, to families? Do we reject casino gambling because we're abstemious and pure, or because we are hesitant to profit from other people's misery—at least any more than we already do?

The plans for casinos in Massachusetts don't change much. The economy changes—in recent years, it's changed for the worse—and so does the casino industry's economy, which has also been in decline recently, whether in Las Vegas or in a state like neighboring Rhode Island, which recently saw the Twin River slots-and-racing parlor, one of the state's top revenue producers, file for bankruptcy.

What also changes is the rhetoric in favor of gaming.

In the last serious but failed push for casinos, Stan Rosenberg, state senator from Amherst and a longtime casino opponent, began pushing the argument that given Massachusetts' acceptance of a lottery, no moral argument against casino gambling could prevail. This weekend, I read a similar argument being offered by Larry Shaffer, the town manager in Amherst: "Personally, I think we've crossed the moral rubicon when we've been accepting lottery money."

In other words, our acceptance of a lottery disqualifies us from arguing against the additional social harm that casinos might bring.

The argument is ridiculous and fatuous, though it has the single advantage of being fairly novel. In 1995, casino proponents accused opposition church groups of trying to protect their bingo games from competition, but I can't remember anyone, including Senator Rosenberg, arguing that accepting lottery money paved a moral pathway to a corporately owned and operated, out-of-town casino operation. Booze and cigarettes are legal and produce lots of tax revenue, too. Can I assume that Shaffer, Rosenberg and other such ethicists are ready to legalize cocaine and heroin?

The case for casino gambling hasn't changed, nor has the case against it. What may have changed, unfortunately, is the resolve of our leaders in the face of crisis."

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