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Before we expand gambling, What are the odds? Part II

Posted by Scott Harshbarger  July 9, 2010 10:29 AM

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The Legislature seems determined to legalize Class III gambling in the state, passing proposals which include at least three major casinos and thousands of highly-addictive and economically-destructive slot machines.

In my first blog on this topic (June 21, 2010), I recommended 7 Essential Steps, before we launched this massive legislative change, to ensure we put in place established best practices for the essential regulatory, legal and fiscal regime – upfront – to minimize the predictable and unintended negative consequences that even supporters know will come with this kind of expanded gambling. These consequences include increased crime and corruption; economic "cannibalization"; major addiction and social harms; the fact that special interests will influence the selection, siting and implementation processes; and that the critical decisions will, just like the legislation itself, be made behind closed doors, without open and transparent disclosure, due diligence, and independent monitoring, regulating and oversight/enforcement. It is now or never, frankly, because once the legislation is enacted, and the race for the gold and the gold rush begins, this expansion will become a runaway express train.

The only leader with the power, as well as the courage and character, to do that now is the Governor. BUT it will take citizen pressure to convince the Governor that the public interest simply has not been represented in the course of this debate. THEREFORE, I urge you to join David D’Alessandro, Linda Sallop, Kathleen Conley Norbut and Alan Khazie and me (see our letter of July 8) in asking the Governor to remedy a fatally-flawed political and policy process, and one that will permanently harm the economic, societal, and cultural development of Massachusetts, by (a) immediately appointing an independent commission to examine the full range of costs that would be incurred due to the proposals to expand predatory gambling or (b) absent this critically-needed review, to VETO any expanded gambling legislation that passes the Legislature.

The reasons for our request include the following:

First, the House and Senate followed a path that made a mockery of the democratic process. Equally troubling is that House and Senate proponents relied on distorted and biased information to justify the passage. The only information that the Speaker of the House relied upon was gathered and promulgated by researchers from Spectrum Gaming and UMass Dartmouth who are well known for their pro-casino stance. The Senate followed the lead of the House, producing a deeply-flawed “study” which, despite costing $80,000 of precious taxpayer dollars, studied only the benefits of casinos and was meant, in the words of the Senate’s chief casino proponent, to “justify” the bill. This study was performed by a firm with deep ties to the casino industry.

These studies do not make good on the Governor's request of December 9, 2009 for a “fresh, independent and transparent analysis of the benefits and costs of expanded gaming.”

Second, as a result, to date, there has been zero assessment of the following costs:

• Creating and maintaining public regulatory agencies to manage the selection and diligence process for and licensing of facilities, the regulation and oversight of expanded gambling, and to interpret and enforce new and existing laws, rules and regulations to control and counteract the dangers of gambling activity
• Expenses incurred by local and abutting communities in terms of expanded demands for services, loss of housing values, increased crime, traffic, education, housing, medical, district courts and lost revenue for local businesses
• The potential loss of revenue to the state Lottery or the diminution of real financial gains to the Commonwealth if gambling revenues are transferred as a fiscal substitution through “holding the Lottery harmless”
• The financial impact of tens of thousands of new problem and compulsive gamblers, whose addicted behaviors have been documented to dramatically increase with proximity to gambling venues and create a rise in personal crime, embezzlement, child and spousal abuse, co-addictive behaviors, all of which demand new expenses from the taxpayers and which provoke new suffering among families
• The dangers of market saturation, given that gambling revenues have dropped around the country, and that the creation of new gambling in Massachusetts will provoke the expansion of gambling in Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire and expansion of existing gambling venues in the Northeast
• The effects of the special interest influence over Beacon Hill, already made manifest by the millions of dollars in casino/slots lobbying and campaign contribution monies that flooded Beacon Hill in the years since the Governor first expressed a willingness to consider expanded gambling in 2007
• The undermining of public confidence in the political process when senior leaders are seen to be promoting special interest legislation for individuals and facilities in their districts and without properly analyzing costs and benefits, to the detriment of the Commonwealth as a whole

Third, while the Governor and the Senate continue to oppose the expansion of slot machine gambling by the creation of racinos, the fact is that every casino that has been proposed in western Massachusetts, central Massachusetts, Boston, or other speculated sites would begin with 3,000 or more such slot machines – each equivalent to the total that has been proposed for all four of the race tracks.

Fourth, this legislative introduction of Class III gambling in Massachusetts removes all existing state legal barriers to the possibility of many more casinos and slot parlors for federally recognized Native American tribes. Each tribal facility could multiply all the effects of expanded gambling with even fewer public protection guarantees and less revenues to the state to offset the costly business and social impacts while enjoying significant competitive advantages.

Fifth, therefore, since the Governor himself explicitly opened the door to expanded gambling with his "destination resort casino" proposals in 2007, the Governor has a special responsibility to ensure that decisions are made in the light of the collective national experience, the best legal and regulatory practices, and the best independently gathered information. That process should undeniably include all the costs and consequences, predictable and unintended but inevitable, that the people of the Commonwealth would incur. I believe it will reveal that, on balance, the introduction of expanded and predatory gambling to Massachusetts would be economically and socially damaging for the Commonwealth and the common and public good, and a decision by the Governor to sign a law that authorized this action without the most scrupulous protections in place in advance and a thorough review of the potential consequences would be a tragedy which ours and future generations will regret.

The BOTTOM LINE: My friends, readers, and fellow citizens, in the words of John Gardner (the founder of Common Cause), "Democracy is NOT a spectator sport!" Now is the time for your voice to be heard. Call on the Governor to stop this dramatic and irreversible expansion of gambling in Massachusetts – at least until we understand exactly what the odds are AND what we are betting on!

This is a Community Voices blog. This blog is not written or edited by the staff of Boston.com or The Boston Globe. The author is solely responsible for its contents.
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About the author

Scott Harshbarger's distinguished public career includes serving two terms as Massachusetts Attorney General (and President of the National Association of Attorneys General)  and as the Democratic candidate for Governor of More »

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