Alan Chartock: Poorest most easily hurt by casinos


GREAT BARRINGTON -- Sometimes when you buy something, you find out later that you made a mistake.

Unfortunately for you, you still own it. The rush to open casinos, both in the commonwealth and across the border in New York, is one good example. It is not surprising that both states’ governors, anxious to provide needed revenue support and not raise taxes, are encouraging developers to open multimillion-dollar gambling casinos. The thinking is that people are going to gamble anyway and it’s better to keep the valuable tax revenue here rather than watching it go to nearby states like Connecticut. Not only that, even if they don’t cross the state lines, people will find other, often illegal, ways to gamble. There have always been organized crime folks who are willing to take bets. When illegal gambling takes place, the ability to tax is gone.

However, there does seem to be some buyer’s remorse on the part of the voters. The people of Massachusetts said that they wanted casinos. Later, though, many people began to think about what they had voted for and had second thoughts. A major campaign was launched to have a second vote, otherwise known as a "do-over." In order to get such a proposition on the ballot, the state’s attorney general, Martha Coakley, would have had to sign off that the proposition met the necessary constitutional provisions. After examining the petition, which as of this writing has more than enough signatures to get it on the ballot, Coakley said no for a number of obscure reasons. The organizing group did not take no for an answer and has taken their case to court.

There are a lot of reasons why people don’t like casinos. They argue that it is not coincidental that the easiest places to put these emporiums are where the most economically challenged of us live. Localities like Springfield really need the tax money.

As a result, political leaders are more easily brought on board. Ironically, the people who are most likely to be hurt by gambling are our poorest citizens. Slot machines are, for some folks, the new crack cocaine. Vulnerable people will try anything to get out of their circumstances.

I know of one store in the WAMC neighborhood where people who can least afford to line up to spend hundreds of dollars on lottery tickets. To me, playing to this type of weakness makes no sense.

There is also some doubt as to whether the gambling casinos will actually bring with them the economic prosperity they promise. The casinos in Atlantic City and so many other places have not led to widespread community development. To the contrary, the people who run these places want to keep the business behind the casino barricades. People are unlikely to move outside the portals to go to the neighborhood pizza joint or any of the other businesses.

We are also hearing that a lot of casinos are being developed. The more of these places that are created, the more likely it is that there will not be enough customers to go around. There are already examples of casinos that are asking for public handouts to support them. That is the last thing that we need to happen.

Finally, there is the NIMBY syndrome. It is one thing to conceptually support the concept of gambling. It is another when there is a proposal to bring it to your town, city or village.

Years ago, when someone suggested bringing a correctional facility to our area, the line formed at the rear for all those opposing the idea. They argued that a prison would harm our tourist industry, our quality of life, and our cultural institutions. I never like to split with my governor who I so admire but in this case, I just don’t see it. Once casinos are here, it is unlikely that they will go away any time soon.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.


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