Recent snapshots from the casino wars:
Governor Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky wants his reelection battle with Democratic challenger Steve Beshear to turn on the
issue of casino gambling. Fletcher opposes any expansion of legal gambling in Kentucky beyond the state's famous racetracks.
Beshear favors amending the state constitution to legalize casinos. Last week, the governor embarked on a "No Casinos Tour"
and began airing commercials warning that casino gambling will mean more crime, bankruptcy, and broken marriages. His
opponent points out that casinos will generate $500 million a year in new state revenue.
In Florida, Governor Charlie Crist is hashing out a gaming agreement with the Seminole Indians, who operate seven casinos
statewide. Those casinos have been limited to Class II slot machines, which are essentially glorified bingo games. But with
lucrative Class III gaming Las Vegas-style slots and table games now lawful in Broward County, federal law entitles the
Indians to offer high-end gaming as well, while allowing the state to negotiate a revenue-sharing deal. Crist is counting on
casino money to plug the state's budget gap, but Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio calls expanded gambling "morally
indefensible." Slot machines are "the most sinister form of gaming," he says. "They literally nickel-and-dime the least among us
down to their last dollar."
The casino skirmishing in Massachusetts these days is especially convoluted. The town of Middleborough has invited the
Mashpee Wampanoags to develop a casino complex in exchange for infrastructure improvements and annual payments of
about $11 million. State Treasurer Tim Cahill calls that a lousy deal and wants the state to auction off casino licenses to private
developers instead. A University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth study says casinos in East Boston, Springfield, and New
Bedford would yield $430 million in annual tax revenues and 10,000 new jobs. Gambling foes from the Catholic Church to the
League of Women Voters warn of the dire results casinos will lead to. And everyone is waiting to see whether Governor Deval
Patrick comes out for or against legalizing casinos.
Then there is Kansas, where the attorney general wants the state supreme court to decide if a new casino gambling law is
constitutional. And Michigan, where legislators have been fighting over letting racetracks add casino-style gambling. And Ohio,
where Governor Ted Strickland has ordered hundreds of bars, clubs, and game parlors to shut down their electronic gambling
machines or face criminal prosecution.
So it goes, year after year, in state after state: Entrepreneurs and investors who ought to have the same freedom to operate
a casino as they would to open a shoe store or start a newspaper are forced instead to run an exhausting and expensive
political gauntlet, often with no guarantee that casino gambling will even be permitted, let alone that they'll win a license to build
one. How many other peaceful businesses offering a popular form of entertainment face such formidable legal and political
barriers to entry?
Why do state governments treat casinos and their would-be owners this way? Surely it can't be from any inherent
objections to gambling 42 states and the District of Columbia have government-run lotteries, with annual revenues of more
than $50 billion. It can't be because gambling is intrinsically immoral. Countless churches and religious organizations raise funds
through bingo, lotteries, and Las Vegas nights. And it certainly can't be said that gambling flouts our national tradition. In 1776,
the Continental Congress established a national lottery to help finance the Revolutionary War. Riverboat gambling thrived on
Mark Twain's Mississippi. Saloon gambling was a mainstay of the California Gold Rush. Gambling is as American as bourbon
and Betsy Ross.
There is no good reason why entry into the casino business should be so severely restricted. It is true, as Kentucky's
governor and many others point out, that gambling has social costs. Though it's harmless fun for most people, some gamblers
become addicted. Compulsive gambling can ruin lives and wreck families; David D'Alessandro, the former CEO of John
Hancock, recently wrote movingly of the misery he and his family endured because of his father's gambling addiction.
But alcohol addiction devastates even more lives than gambling, yet who thinks we should return to Prohibition or make it
all but impossible to open a bar or a liquor store? Automobile accidents kill 40,000 Americans every year, and severely injure
tens of thousands more. The social costs of cars are steep, but no one wants lawmakers to criminalize auto dealerships or
decide which cities can have one. The harm caused by graphic, violent, or propagandistic films may be great, but that isn't an
argument for state-controlled studios.
The struggles of compulsive gamblers must not be minimized, but neither should they be used to justify authoritarianism.
Gambling and casinos are not for everyone. But the American way is to err on the side of freedom.