Legalized gambling: A high stakes bet

Faced with a debilitating budget deficit, state lawmakers once again seem poised to take a high-stakes wager that legalized casino gambling will alleviate the Commonwealth’s fiscal crisis.

According to one State House insider, the issue of legalizing gambling has recently crept back onto the floor, with a possible vote on the matter coming within the next three weeks. Currently, there are as many as six bills circulating about the Senate floor aimed at expanding gambling in the state. If passed, the various measures could add slot machines to the state’s racetracks and could approve two potential casinos — one in the western and one in southeastern part of the state. In addition, the Commonwealth already has one federally recognized Indian tribe and federal recognition is pending for seven additional tribes. The legalization of Class III gambling — the type that includes slot machines and casinos — would open the door for each of these tribes to open casinos on their ancestral land.

Proponents of legalized gambling argue that the revenue generated by adding slot machines to racetracks would significantly benefit the state. They estimate legalized gambling could generate $400 million in revenue for this state and would retain dollars being drained away as Massachusetts residents travel to casinos in neighboring states.

The arguments examined

Those in favor of casino gambling argue that the income generated would significantly benefit the ailing state economy. However, a closer look at states that already have legalized casino gambling seems to refute that argument.

In New Jersey, for example, where legalized casino gambling has been a reality for several years, the tax rate is higher than that of Massachusetts — yet that state faces a dire budget crisis. The same is true for Connecticut. And Iowa, which generates close to $200 million in annual revenue from its gambling tax, is struggling with an anticipated budget deficit of about $200 million this year. This comes on top of an additional $200 million Iowa lawmakers borrowed to make up last year’s deficit.

In this state, according to Sen. Susan Tucker, (D-Andover), vice-chairperson of the Joint Legislative Committee on Government Regulation and staunch gambling foe, residents would need to gamble and lose $2 billion raise the anticipated $400 million in revenues. According to Sen. Tucker, that amounts to a family of four losing $1,400 per year and would be the equivalent of a seven percent increase in the current tax rate.

At the same time, casinos all too often have a negative impact on local businesses in nearby towns.

In a 2001 statement against gambling issued by Archbishop Seán O’Malley, while he was still bishop of Fall River, he cited the case of Atlantic City, N.J. “When gambling was introduced into Atlantic City, progressive thinking businessmen backed the initiative only to regret it later, when they discovered that the casinos cannibalized local businesses,” Archbishop O’Malley wrote. “Within three years, the crime rate tripled. Forty percent of restaurants closed. The number of homeless people increased by 2000 percent. Property values dropped …[and] an unseemly number of teenagers became gambling addicts. Prostitution was rampant.”

According to a 1996 study published by the University of Colorado, the number of retail businesses in Gilpin County, Colo., home to the majority of the state’s casinos, dropped by half within a few years of the arrival of casinos.

A University of South Dakota study conducted in 1991 showed that retail and service businesses in that state suffered a net loss of approximately $60 million in anticipated sales the year following the introduction of casino gambling.

"There has to be a healthier way to run our governments," declared Archbishop O'Malley in his 2001 statement.

Gerald D’Avolio, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts, echoed that sentiment in an Oct. 27 interview with The Pilot, saying, “Casino gambling is an inappropriate response to address the financial needs of the Commonwealth.”

The Church’s position on gambling

The Church teaches that, “Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2413)

"Even though gambling is not intrinsically evil, it does not make it right in every instance," commented Daniel Avila, associate director for policy and research for the MCC.

Skeptics argue that the Church itself engages in gambling through parish-sponsored bingo. Indeed, in a 1994 statement the bishops of Massachusetts said they “candidly acknowledge and lament the fact that many of their own educational and charitable programs have become dependent upon bingo and other games of chance.” The bishops have also repeatedly said that they desire to wean Church institutions from such dependence through improved stewardship.

Still, supporters of charity games of chance maintain that small-money bingo games held once or twice a week, and that last perhaps two hours, do not pose anywhere near the same risk for huge monetary loss and addiction as high stakes casino gambling.

"When you look at the gambling proposal currently before the state senate, there is much reason for concern," asserted Avila.

"There is no doubt that gambling victimizes the poor," wrote Archbishop O'Malley in his 2001 statement. "The poorest citizens spend the largest percentage of their income gambling. Those who can afford it the least gamble the most."

"Both private and public gambling concerns target their advertising at the low income, elderly and minority populations," the statement continued.

"We must be suspicious of those who want to put casinos in the most economically depressed areas where people are most vulnerable to the gambling syndrome," Archbishop O'Malley wrote in 2001.

A study published by the State University of New York at Buffalo found that the rate of problem and pathological gambling among poor people is more than three times that of the most affluent segments of society.

"The study provides support for the notion that lower socioeconomic-status Americans are being disproportionately affected by gambling," wrote the researchers.

A 1996 Mississippi State University study found that poor Mississippi residents living in counties with casinos lost a far greater percentage of their income in the casinos than did wealthier gamblers.

Gamblers earning less than $10,000 per year lost about 10 percent of their family income to casinos, while those earning more than $40,000 spent only about one percent of their earnings on casino gambling.

Speaking before the gambling study commission at Bristol Community College this past December, Fall River Bishop George Coleman noted that “it is not without reason that those seeking to build large-scale gambling facilities look to southeastern Massachusetts rather than to Weston, Wellesley and Wayland.”

And even when those who can least afford to lose realize the harm gambling has done to their live, many find it impossible to stop.

A Harvard Medical School study estimates more than 5.3 million U.S. adults are unable to limit their gambling to harmless entertainment that they can afford. The negative impact on society includes an increase in bad checks, embezzlement, personal bankruptcy and divorce.

The number of addictions increases dramatically in communities near casinos. A study published by the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming tracked eight communities with casino gambling. The study concluded that there was a significant increase in personal bankruptcy in seven of the eight communities.