Friday, September 30, 2011
Why casinos are bad for Massachusetts

As casino gambling gains momentum at the Statehouse, I'd like to explain why I remain a strong opponent, and will vote against this legislation.

There's a saying I heard years ago that applies in this situation: "Manage from the head, lead from the heart." In both ways, pragmatic and passionate, casinos and slots are wrong for our state, and our region.

Over and over, this initiative has been described as a "jobs bill," a necessary boost for our sluggish economy. And no doubt some jobs will be created — solid, short-term construction jobs at the outset, then generally low-wage, longer-term jobs staffing casinos and related resorts.

But I must respectfully disagree with those who say that this is the best way, only way, or right way for Massachusetts to create work — or that those who oppose casinos somehow don't understand that we need jobs, and need them now.

Our economy has always been about education, innovation, health care, financial services and creative entrepreneurs. Our tourism industry has always attracted visitors from around the world because of our environment, culture and history.

Where do casinos fit into that grand picture? They don't.

Far better for us to focus our efforts on economic growth that lifts our spirits, celebrates our creativity, builds and rebuilds our infrastructure, and makes us proud. In the public and private sectors, we can do this without abandoning our core values.

What's more, as I analyze the business case, I don't see gambling fulfilling the promise of jobs that improve our standard of living. One visit to Atlantic City, strolling one block off their famous boardwalk into tough streets and bad neighborhoods, makes the opposite case. So does a comparison with Nevada, where gambling dominates the economy: Nevada's unemployment rate is above 12 percent, ours closer to 7 percent.

Casino revenue is sure to dilute as more and more casinos are built. The number of people who will face serious emotional and financial hardship from gambling addiction is sure to rise, along with the cost of services for them.

And as I understand the industry, its history and present profile, I also see that the real money made in casinos does not go to people who work in the halls and hallways, or to host communities. It goes to those who own these operations, corporate structures without community roots or social conscience.

Then there's the promise of revenue. Yet over and over again, experience has shown that gambling raises revenue in no fair proportion to income, from those who can least afford it. And much of that funding goes right back to those who gambled it in, in the form of human services and social programs as lives crumble. This is no way to fund our important governmental responsibilities.

There have been many amendments brought forward to make this bill more palatable. I've offered a handful; share more of the revenue with our cultural and tourism sectors, protect local entertainment venues from unfair competition subsidized by gaming, clarify the rights and role of our Wampanoag neighbors.

All these are important, but they are not at the heart of the matter. They don't change this direction or its long-term impact.

So I find myself thinking this: One day the phone will ring, and it will be one of our children, or grandchildren, calling with great news — they've found a job and will be starting work in a few days. We'll share their excitement, and wonder what, of all possible things, they'll be doing. Providing health care? Building a school? Planting quahogs? Teaching kindergarten? Driving a bus? Writing computer software? Installing solar panels?

Of course we'll be encouraging no matter what, but if the answer comes back that they'll be working in a casino, who among us would be quite as proud? And who will celebrate that legacy, which now belongs to us?

Dan Wolf, a Democrat, represents the Cape and Islands in the Massachusetts Senate.