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Between the Lines: The House Always Wins

Has the casino industry finally hit the jackpot in Massachusetts?

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Thursday, September 08, 2011

If I believe the news reports, Massachusetts officials will soon hammer out a deal to bring casino gambling to the Bay State.

Yes, I've been reading similar reports for more than 15 years, but that doesn't mean I doubt their veracity this time around.

In the 1990s, after the state Legislature voted down a proposed casino bill, a local political consultant and casino proponent told me the gaming industry would pursue Massachusetts relentlessly and would eventually prevail, most likely at a time when the state economic picture was bleak enough to make its political resolve weak. Today, that consultant is part of a Valley-based LLC hoping to win one of three resort casino licenses state officials intend to put out to bid. My best information indicates that, he, like the industry he represents, has never wavered in his effort to make casino gaming a reality in Massachusetts.

Taking the consultant's word for it that pro-casino forces never sleep, I view their public opponents as underdogs, facing the same difficulties as many other political activists who challenge the efficacy of government deregulation or question various "private-public partnerships" undertaken for the ostensible benefit of the public. People who raise concerns about the risks of casino gambling—addiction and its attending human costs; the impact on small business, cultural institutions and art venues when casinos begin to suck up hundreds of millions annually in local discretionary income—are easy to marginalize as hand-wringing moralists and killjoys, standing not only in the way of free enterprise but of a rockin' good time.

Of course, it is not free-market ideologues from the state's libertarian-leaning Republican party who stand ready to legalize casinos in Massachusetts. It's not some faction of Rush Limbaugh acolytes, popping pills and smoking big cigars while admonishing casino opponents to stop being so dour, so precious, so puritanical.

Rather, it is a bunch of Democrats—in this case, Democrats who've spent years perfecting the triangulation strategies of Bill Clinton, playing to corporate America with one hand and labor unions with the other, often at the expense of those caught in the middle.

Fact is, though most of the earlier efforts to legalize casino gaming had the support of Republican governors, there would be no casino issue alive today in Massachusetts without significant support for gambling from Democrats over the last two decades. To keep that support alive and vibrant, the industry has done a good job seeding support for gambling at the local as well as state and national level, working with municipal officials, often Democrats, to create a sense of local public support for casinos and the economic benefits they might bring.

The earlier casino battle saw great tension between pro-casino and anti-casino Democrats, exposing deeper disagreements about the party's core philosophy and the role of government in economic and regulatory matters. Casino proponents viewed opponents as anti-business or would-be architects of a nanny state. Opponents saw casino supporters as shortsighted and willfully ignorant of the true impact of casinos on the Democrats' traditional constituency: working people.

At least there was some kind of debate back then. Today, it appears that that tension among Democrats has been tamed to the point that pro-casino forces will finally prevail without much of a fight. If that is so, it reflects a deeper problem than the issue of casino gaming itself poses.

This is Gov. Deval Patrick's third try at legalizing gaming; though he seemed briefly restrained by his second failure, his enthusiasm is clearly restored. With a recent concession from House Speaker Robert DeLeo on the major sticking point from the last round—how to license a slot parlor in addition to three resort casinos—as well as the continued support of Senate President Therese Murray, Patrick appears to have his rubber stamps all lined up. Whatever debate ensues will come from opponents who already know that top Democrats have the votes to pass their bill. Such a debate will be mainly for show.

If victorious, Deval Patrick will likely be long gone from the corner office by the time the full impact of casinos is known. But the victors will likely justify their efforts as a necessary response to high unemployment and declining state revenue, generating more than $250 million in one-time revenue from a round of bidding that starts at a minimum of $85 million per license, plus a big cut of the action and thousands of jobs going forward.

Sadly, such a justification shows absolutely no progress in the thinking coming out of Beacon Hill since the casino issue first came up in the 1990s. It shows instead a calcified and unimaginative impulse to take easy money from an historically sordid industry that is happy to pay for a monopoly position in an untapped market. Patrick and his fellow Democrats haven't won the debate; they've sidestepped it by using their parliamentary advantages, ignoring the warnings of other states' experiences with gaming, and turning a deaf ear to the plight of gambling's many victims.

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