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Deval Patrick's Racino Problem

Why Massachusetts pols are addicted to gambling.

Aug 16, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 45 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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And almost every other index we have of the benefits of the gambling industry has worsened in a climate of economic downturn. The strongest argument for state-sponsored gambling back in 2008 involved interstate competition. Connecticut’s Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos, both owned by recently invented Indian tribes, are only a hundred miles from Boston, and they suck tens of millions of dollars out of Massachusetts every year. But gambling has proved highly susceptible to economic conditions (why shouldn’t it?), and it was recently reported that the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation was trying to renegotiate $2 billion worth of debt and was angling to get its largely Malaysian lenders to take a haircut. 

In the more recent version of the gambling bill, tax revenues, not leakage to other states’ casinos, have dominated discussion, but this argument, too, is weaker in an age of financial crisis and big deficits. Gambling is, as everyone realizes, a tax on the poor. This is true even where the state uses private companies as tax farmers, the way Governor Patrick has intended to. In an economy like the present one, if you hike taxes on the poor through a levy on their paychecks, you get accused of troglodytic, pre-Keynesian economic thinking. Why does taxing the poor suddenly turn into stimulus if you do it in an atmosphere of ringing fruit machines, rolling dice, disco balls, and hookers? 

Here is where the story line may diverge most radically from that of Obama and health care. It is significant that the debate in both the senate and the house—with hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts at stake and years of legislative work in the balance—took only a few minutes, as if the vote had not been that important. Maybe Patrick and DeLeo realize that the reason they lost public opinion over gambling two years ago is that they lost the argument over gambling. But as long as gambling interests don’t realize that, there will still be good money in it for politicians. 

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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