Through the backdoor

As we go to press, the state Senate is set to vote on 127 amendments to an economic stimulus package. The plan was unveiled Oct. 30 in response to the declining economy that is at the base of the state’s current budget crisis.

The package attempts to expand the state’s economy by attracting more tourism, creating two tax-free shopping days, providing no-interest business loans, and offering incentives to companies that create new jobs. All seem to be fine ideas.

But the package also includes measures that may be morally troubling to Catholics. Among these is an amendment to the bill introduced by State Sen. Brian Lees, R-East Longmeadow, Nov. 4 that will bring 6,000 video slot machines and two casinos to the state, if approved.

The amendment should not be attached to the bill. Legalization of slot machines and casino gambling in Massachusetts as a way to pay for the shortfall of the state budget would be a regrettable decision if made by the Senate.

Legislators should not decide on the expansion of gambling in Massachusetts in undo haste. Sneaking such a far-reaching measure through the use of a last minute backdoor amendment rather than going through the usual legislative procedure shows an unwillingness on the part of lawmakers to deal openly with the issue.

If some legislators wish to expand gambling, the issue should be dealt with on its own merits, not just as an add-on to an economic stimulus package. A controversy of this magnitude certainly deserves open debate.

Public opinion seems to be highly divided. In fact, as recently as Nov. 4, our neighbors in Maine have defeated a ballot question to build a casino in the southern part of that state.

Proponents cite economic benefits and job creation as key factors in the need to expand gambling. But the repercussions of gambling go beyond economics. Any potential economic benefit must be weighed against potential harm to families and communities.

The social consequences of addiction to gambling and its impact on working class families would be enormous.

In our Oct. 31 story “Legalized gambling: A high stakes bet,” gambling foe state Sen. Susan Tucker told The Pilot that residents would need to gamble and lose $2 billion to 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.

What’s more, gambling tends to attract middle- to low-income adults who often become addicted to the thrill of high stakes wagering. If gambling should be expanded to increase state tax revenue, why not promote smoking to increase the tax revenue? The difference seems to be that we, as a nation, have come to understand the horrible long-term effects of smoking and its costs to society. Apparently, this is not yet the case with gaming. If this were the case, the outcry against expanding gaming would be enormous.

Gerald D’Avolio, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the bishops of Massachusetts, sent a letter to state senators Nov. 5 urging them “to vote against expansion of gambling including casino gambling in the Commonwealth.” In the letter, D’Avolio says “to resort to expand gambling, with all of its negative social repercussions, is not a wise and prudent course.” For the sake of our Commonwealth, we hope they will heed his request. Economic stimulus like that, we don’t need.