Three casinos, including one in metro Atlanta, could produce a billion dollars a year for state government, predicts a study commissioned by the Georgia Lottery Corporation.
Now, a billion dollars is a lot of money these days. It could pay a lot of teachers and build a lot of schools, although Georgia legislators would no doubt prefer to use the money to reduce or eliminate state taxes on business.
But is legalized gambling likely to happen? The early line from oddsmakers says no, given the power of religious conservatives in the state. And while I tend to agree with that, money in amounts beginning in “B” has a way of changing minds. For example, while those same religious conservatives have a lot of sway in neighboring Alabama, the casino industry has made serious inroads there in recent years. How? Well, a federal corruption prosecution is now underway in our neighboring state, focusing on charges that legislators were bribed to cast pro-gambling votes.
In the study commissioned by the lottery corporation, the danger of corruption is addressed with admirable frankness. It recognizes that when billions of dollars of private profit depend on decisions made by government officials, money has a way of moving from pocket to pocket. The best guarantee against that danger, it says, is to instill a mindset that “the goal of (gaming) regulators is not to maximize revenue, but to enforce the rules.”
That’s a problem. On a variety of fronts, from environmental protection to consumer affairs, Georgia elected officials tend to take the opposite view, choosing to prioritize revenue over rules. That doesn’t exactly instill a lot of confidence in how well they’d handle gambling.
In addition, while the lottery study looks only at three casinos operating slot machines and video gambling, it’s foolish to think it would end there.
“Slippery-slope” arguments are overused, but in this case that slope is as well-worn and obvious as a ski-run. In state after state, video gambling clears the path to table-gambling; one casino eases the way to three casinos to 10 casinos. The promise of easy money, for governments and private investors alike, becomes too hard to resist.
The lobbying underway to legalize horseracing in Georgia is driven by that same dynamic. I’m a big fan of horseracing; there’s nothing like standing at the rail watching those beautiful animals pound their way to the finish line. But horse tracks have been closing all over the country. Even in states such as Kentucky, where the roots of the industry are deep, the tracks that survive — so-called “racinos” — do so not on horse-racing revenue but because they install thousands of slot machines.
It’s also important to think carefully about the economic and cultural impact of casinos, because the gaming industry casts a large shadow where other things have trouble growing. Go to gambling towns such as Reno or Atlantic City, and you’ll notice that outside the casinos there is almost no commercial activity. Casinos do everything in their power to keep visitors and their dollars contained on-site. As a result, you see few independent restaurants, hotels, bars and entertainment facilities.
The same is true of a major city such as Las Vegas. Even with a low tax structure made possible by gaming revenue, traditional industries have been reluctant to locate there because the casino culture is so dominant.
In fact, as someone who lived and worked in Las Vegas for several years, I’d align myself with religious conservatives on this one. It’s hard to quantify, but beyond the surface din of excitement, there’s an underlying sadness to casino towns that money just doesn’t alleviate. There are some things more important than money.
– Jay Bookman