History May Prove Charlie Baker Right When He Mused on 'Trying One Casino First'

Friday, October 18, 2013

It will probably be two or three years before Massachusetts has three casinos and one parlor for slot machines up and running.

So Charlie Baker, who has recently embarked on his second campaign for governor, will have to wait a while before he can say, “I told you so.”

Remember what Baker said about casinos during his first campaign, four years ago, when the casino bill had not yet been enacted by the legislature?

He said no one could say for sure how multiple casinos would affect our economy and society, and that perhaps we should license just one casino and see how it went before licensing more.

The day may come when we learn that Baker was right.

Although Baker never offered an opinion on where that single casino ought to be, the obvious choice was Boston, the biggest city in New England.

It’s in the nature of big cities to offer all kinds of attractions to all kinds of people.  You do not have to partake or approve of everything available in a big city to see the wisdom of providing so many options for self-expression and self-gratification in one place.  Let freedom ring.

Baker’s common sense approach never had a real chance in a political system designed to respond, correctly so, to different constituencies and different parts of the state.  We thus have a law that will give us casinos in the western, eastern, and southeastern parts of the state and a slot parlor not legally tethered to a particular region but likely to end up somewhere in the 495 belt.

Considering the crying need for new state revenue, the perennial truth that all politics is local, and the knowledge we have (and don’t have) of how casinos impact populations, communities and governments, the legislature did an outstanding job in crafting the casino legislation, Chapter 194 of the Acts of 2011, An Act Establishing Expanded Gaming in the Commonwealth.

The only problem was, lawmakers had to take a shot at a moving target.  Then, as now, the casino industry was rapidly expanding.  It remains on a fast evolutionary track leading to places we cannot fully see or understand.

In 2011, Massachusetts became the 17th state to allow standard casinos by state law.  Twelve other states allowed slot machines at race tracks at that point, and Indian tribes operated gambling facilities in 28 states.

The Institute for American Values, in a recent report titled “Why Casinos Matter,” noted that casinos “began to enter the mainstream of American society” around 1990.

During its post-1990 expansion, the report says, “casino gambling itself changed dramatically.  A national market headquartered in Nevada and Atlantic City has been joined by dozens of new regional markets across the country.  Table games catering to high rollers have largely given way to slot machines catering to middle and low rollers.  Casino gambling as a once or twice a year vacation has largely given way to casino gambling as a once or twice a month or once or twice or more a week pattern of life.”

As more states permit casinos in the hope of capturing the revenue their residents generate on visits to neighboring-state casinos -- as Massachusetts has done with an eye on Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York -- the competition for the spoils of state-sponsored gambling gets hotter and hotter.

“Casinos may begin by making lots for money for the state government,” the Institute for American Values report laments, “but the economic dynamics over time tend to become increasingly negative and zero-sum, as politicians try to solve the problem of sagging gambling revenues by sponsoring more gambling, and as every state tries harder and harder to poach gamblers from other states.”

The report perceives a connection between the nation-wide expansion of casinos and the definition by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980 of gambling as a specific medical problem “for those individuals uniquely susceptible to its appeal.”  This definition had three significant consequences, according to the Institute for American Values:

  • One, it divided the American public “into two separate and unequal groups: on one side is the great majority of the population who can enjoy gambling as healthy fun; and on the other side is a small clinical population that fits the specific diagnostic criteria of gambling addiction.”
  • Two, it allowed the gambling lobby to use the new definition “to promote the idea that the harms of gambling are limited and manageable and that the gambling industry itself – the producer of the harms – is also the best source of research and investigation into limiting those harms.”
  • Three, it exempted states “from their traditional public health responsibility to prevent the known harms of gambling” and, instead, allowed “government to shift responsibility for treatment onto the gambler herself and onto mental health professionals.”

When a number of states allowed casino gambling to spread beyond its traditional bastions in the Nevada desert and the Jersey shore, they instigated a social experiment of vast and historic proportions.  Massachusetts is about to become a guinea pig in that experiment.

Maybe it will work out fine…or maybe not.  We may not know for sure until 2020.

You can find the Institute for American Values report on casinos at:

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