BU Today

Campus Life + In the World

BU on Politics: Rolling the Dice on Gambling in Mass.

Prof says state will probably legalize casinos despite the risks

leclair.jpg

Daniel LeClair, a MET professor and chairman of the applied social sciences department, says legalizing casinos in Massachusetts could addict more citizens to gambling and addict the state itself to the extra revenues. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

This week, BU Today looks back at the year in politics at BU — from alums with a national voice to experts on local issues.

Early next year, the Massachusetts legislature will decide whether to legalize casino gambling in the commonwealth. Proponents, chief among them Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, want to create three casino licenses, contending that legalized gambling could generate 20,000 permanent jobs and $400 million in annual tax revenue for a state in serious need of cash. Critics, including fellow Democrat Salvatore DiMasi, the speaker of the state’s House of Representatives, argue that the governor’s projections of a casino windfall are overly optimistic and that any additional revenue from gambling wouldn’t be worth the resulting increase in gambling addiction and crime.

Even with no casinos within its borders, Massachusetts has between 123,000 and 250,000 problem gamblers, according to the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, a nonprofit that offers information and counseling services to gambling addicts. Nevertheless, the state faces billions in funding shortfalls for such things as transportation and the new mandatory health insurance law, and casinos offer a monetary lifeline.

Will the current push for casinos succeed where others have failed? We asked Metropolitan College’s Daniel LeClair, a professor and chairman of the applied social sciences department, to give us odds.

BU Today: How realistic are the Patrick administration’s projections of an economic boost from casinos?
LeClair:
The answer is we don’t know. We’d have to look more at his figures, and even then it’s only a guess, because a lot will depend on how the economy fares overall. Still, revenues were overprojected in the past related to something very similar — the lottery. We’ve just learned that there’s going to be a budget shortfall in the lottery, that revenues are going to be lower than projected. It’s not uncommon to overproject the public take in order to push through development or help get legislation passed.

Do you agree with those who say that casinos aren’t legitimate economic development because they merely divert spending from other entertainment sectors of the economy, such as restaurants?
We’ve found with the lottery that the people with the least amount of spending discretion are the ones who spend more on gambling. If you’re in an office building on payday, it’s the lowest-paid people you see going down to the convenience store and buying lottery tickets. It’s not the middle and high wage earners.

Now, that’s the lottery, and whether it would be the same with casinos I don’t know. It’s possible that resort casinos may move more into the middle or upper-middle class, because there’s dinner, bars, dancing, and other entertainment there. But if the clients being pulled into casinos are from lower economic brackets, then spending on gambling may not affect theaters, restaurants, and other culture institutions, but might affect more practical things like taxis and even public transportation.

Does Massachusetts need casino revenue?
Well, it definitely needs some new revenue source. The state has a huge transportation deficit, and the cost of the new mandatory health-care system may be quite high. And now there’s this shortfall in lottery revenue.

Still, the pattern for new revenue sources is that public spending always goes up to meet that level, and then governments can’t go back. I don’t know the experiences of other states that allow casinos, but it is interesting that few have closed them down. It could mean that the anticipated problems have not occurred, or it could mean that they’ve grown too accustomed to the revenue.

Does the Patrick administration’s casino plan do enough to mitigate against things like gambling addiction?
That’s one of the things that concern me. Many of our drug treatment centers now take patients with gambling addiction and put them through the Alcoholics Anonymous model. It’s absolutely amazing how similar the dynamics are between addictions to drugs and alcohol and to compulsive gambling. Indeed, they often go together.

I don’t like gambling. I can’t imagine anybody throwing their money away. So I feel like, okay, gamblers who can’t control themselves deserve their trouble. But on the other hand, I also feel that may be a form of entrapment, because the revenues are so enormous and there are huge profits, and it seems to me that these casinos are luring more than just that percentage of people with a predisposition to gambling addiction. The question is, do you want the state to provide the bait to open up that latent disposition and then use state money to repress it and to treat it?

I’m also worried about crime. One of the reasons that people come into addiction centers is that they commit crimes to pay their debts. When gambling addicts need money, they steal first from a family member or a close friend, and when they’ve alienated themselves, they rob a stranger, maybe in a mugging or something like that. Then they get arrested, and if they can convince the court, they can get a suspended sentence provided they seek treatment.

Also, the money that’s involved in the winnings draws criminals into the immediate area, because after somebody wins they often start flashing their money around and put themselves in harm’s way.

If casinos do come to Massachusetts, where are the best and worst places to locate them?
I know that those interested in economic development in towns like Springfield, New Bedford, and Fall River would gravitate toward having a casino, because these towns need the money. But I would think that’s the last place you’d want to put it. You’d want to put it away from a city, where you have to drive to the place, away from potential muggers. These street crimes are very difficult to commit in suburban or rural areas.

Any casino should be located in a place that’s a little more remote, where you drive specifically for that purpose, and there’s parking and the area is fenced off.

I would get it away from walk-in populations. Just having to have a car to drive there and have transportation would deter a lot of crime. Plus, I wouldn’t want the people with lower incomes to be enticed to gamble more. You want to hit more of a middle class, even though in the lower crime areas there will probably be more citizen opposition to building a casino.

The legislature will most likely hold hearings on the governor’s casino legislation in early 2008. What are its chances?
Since the debate is going to be right after an election, the timing is good for passage. I think the major opposition would probably be political, because this would be a windfall for the governor in meeting all of his agenda and a competitor might organize against it for political purposes. Still, I don’t hear much grassroots opposition.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.

This story originally ran November 28, 2007.