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Joan Vennochi

Let the people pick their poison

THIS IS a real Robert Frost moment for Massachusetts.

Two roads diverged, as the poet famously wrote. One directs the Commonwealth to casino gambling, its promise and pitfalls. The other keeps Massachusetts on the well-worn and unpopular path of conventional taxation.

Governor Deval Patrick placed Massachusetts at this crossroads when he endorsed a proposal to introduce three resort-style casinos. But the path to this point was cleared long before he took office.

The Massachusetts State Lottery and the lure of casinos in nearby Connecticut pushed Bay Staters to this juncture. So did Barbara Anderson.

The citizen-activist led the antitax crusade that resulted in the passage of Proposition 2 1/2 in 1980. The measure capped the property tax in cities and towns, and, with it, local revenue available for schools, public works, and public safety.

It also marked the start of a new attitude toward government in Massachusetts. Since Prop 2 1/2, the concept of shared commitment to community has been recast as unjust burden on the taxpayer. Tax is a dirty word; those who disagree are denounced as hacks and wastrels.

Today, Democrats still control the Massachusetts Legislature. But, few will speak up for any kind of tax increase. Their reluctance promotes slot machines and Black Jack as the preferred generator of new state revenue.

As candidate for governor, Patrick sounded ready to stand up to the post-Prop 2 1/2 premise that all government is wasteful, if not corrupt. "There is a connection between what you pay and what you get," he said on the campaign trail. "If we don't want the government to do anything, you can keep your money, because it will also be your broken road, and your broken school, and your broken neighborhood . . ." At the same time, he promised property tax relief, although he never explained exactly how he would shift the burden.

Relatively quickly, the first Democratic governor in 16 years concluded that money for broken roads, schools, and neighborhoods would not be coming from new taxes. It would have to come from casinos. Patrick's first state budget proposal called for a modest, local-option increase in the meals tax, along with a plan to close corporate tax loopholes. The business community whined, House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi succumbed to the whining, and Patrick's plan went down in flames.

Out of its ashes, rises a new vision: Massachusetts, gambling mecca.

Patrick wants three casinos, in Southeastern Massachusetts, Western Massachusetts, and the Boston metropolitan area. Yes, John Winthrop's shining city upon a hill soon will be showing off some Atlantic City sparkle. And Patrick's plan is just the beginning. A Native American tribe that doesn't win one of the licenses available under his plan could also develop a casino with permission from the federal government. Everyone in the state could be in striking distance of a casino.

The governor's plan is based on the promise of 20,000 jobs and $2 billion in economic activity. However, some studies suggest that casinos might drain wealth, not just from gamblers who lose, but from other businesses and tourist destinations. What will the new tourist itinerary be? Plymouth Rock, Tanglewood, Quincy Market - or simply the nearest casino?

Change happens, and the Commonwealth has changed a lot in 25 years. Many New England trademarks and touchstones no longer exist. But inviting the casino industry to Massachusetts is a much bigger step than allowing the sale of beer and wine on Sundays. The past shouldn't be a trap, but neither should the future. Casinos will forever transform and entrap the Massachusetts brand.

However, as Patrick reminded us so eloquently on the campaign trail, the money to maintain the traditional Bay State brand must come from somewhere.

Do most voters prefer the promise of casino-generated revenue to any tax increase? Anderson recently said that gambling would make a "perfect ballot question." It would, and it would also bring the debate over taxes back to where she started it - with the people.

Let the people pick their poison - casinos or taxes. That's better than ceding control to greedy gambling lobbyists camped out on Beacon Hill.

"Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back," Frost wrote.

That's a nice, poetic way of saying once you go down the casino gambling path, there's no turning back.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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