We told you so: Casino gambling is doing more harm than good in Pennsylvania
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Five years ago, on July 4, 2004, the Pennsylvania General Assembly issued its Declaration of Dependence on slot machines as a major source of government revenue. We who opposed this move issued various dire predictions about the consequences of legalizing slots. Now, as the Rivers Casino calls us to "Get Ready" for its official opening Sunday on Pittsburgh's North Shore, it's a good time to assess those predictions.
We said the promises of property tax "relief" were unrealistic. Five years later, my tax bill hasn't gone down. Gov. Ed Rendell boasts of reducing tax bills by an average of $200 while seeking to raise the income tax by an average of $250 per household. A shell game, perhaps, but not relief.
We said sponsors of small-dollar charitable games would suffer. When I met with Pennsylvania mayors last month, the most common theme was the revenue plunge at Pittsburgh-area bingos and carnivals due to competition from the Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Washington, Pa. And that's before the Rivers Casino opens.
We said the "race to the bottom" -- a downward spiral of states expanding gambling to compete with each other's gambling expansions -- would continue. Since 2004 West Virginia has added table games, Maryland has approved slots and Delaware has legalized table games and sports betting. Ohio's governor now wants slots to balance his budget.
We said "limited gaming" was a convenient fiction because the greed of casinos (and of the elected officials who support them) is never satisfied. This year, facing a budget deficit, Mr. Rendell suddenly dropped his go-slow approach to more gambling. Instead, he began recruiting university and community college presidents willing to set their dignity aside for more funding by asking them to endorse the legalization of highly addictive video poker in 10,000 Pennsylvania locations.
We said thousands of people would become financially and emotionally obliterated gambling addicts. The acceleration of damage is still in its early stages, but calls to the state's help line already have multiplied fourfold, and one counselor told Pittsburgh's City Paper of the rising prevalence of financial problems among elderly Washington County patrons of the Meadows.
Finally, we said slots casinos would be economic losers for their surrounding regions unless they drew most of their gamblers from elsewhere. It is not coincidental that, while our state Gaming Control Board churns out rosy press releases on the performance of Pennsylvania's casinos, the state government faces one of the nation's worst budget crises. "Convenience" casinos that are not tourist destinations just recirculate money and can only hurt the economy.
Now that we've shown our capacity as policy prognosticators, here's a new set of projections:
• Enjoy your favorite Downtown or North Shore eatery or watering hole now. Many of them will close in the next few years, unable to compete with the Rivers Casino's glitz and discounted food and drinks.
• The billboard industry will enjoy a windfall as the Rivers, Meadows, Wheeling Island and Mountaineer casinos compete feverishly for the $1 billion Pittsburgh-area casino market.
• The Rivers Casino will generate little off-site economic development; it will generate business largely for itself.
• The General Assembly will approve table games to complete Mr. Rendell's legacy before he leaves office.
• Taverns and clubs will continue to push for video poker and inflated charitable gaming jackpots so that they too can become purveyors of predatory gambling. Casinos will threaten to demand their $50 million license fees back if anyone else gets to expand gambling. In the worst-case scenario, they will cut a deal and we will get these additional forms of gambling plus table games.
• As gambling-related financial and emotional tragedies proliferate, a Republican governor will say that he's really against casinos while lamenting that his hands are tied by the General Assembly's addiction to gambling revenues.
• Some clever researcher will prove that elderly widows in Washington County are losing twice as much money gambling as they are receiving in tax "relief."
Pittsburgh's apparent embrace of predatory gambling sounds like a version of "The Emperor's New Clothes." Most policy makers and social-service providers think it's a bad idea, but no one wants to offend the elected officials who are counting on the revenue. Eventually, however, we will be unable to overlook the mounting economic and social harm caused by casinos. Then we will wonder how we could have welcomed them while Russia, after 20 years of experience with casinos, was banning them.
In the meantime, be careful. Casinos have positioned themselves in American culture as wholesome entertainment, but people don't raid their children's college funds or blow their whole paycheck or Social Security stipend because they love Kennywood Park or the movies.
First Published August 6, 2009 12:00 am