The state Senate plan to bring casino gambling to five upstate counties is so typical of the way lawmakers try to solve their budget problems: Instead of reining in their spending or raising taxes on those most able to afford it, they look for an easy way out. The problem is, casino gambling isn’t it.
For one thing, there’s already too much competition: New Jersey was first in the east with casinos at Atlantic City a couple of decades ago. It’s been joined by a couple of Indian tribes in Connecticut and one in Rhode Island, and now the states of Delaware, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts either have or are preparing to open full-scale casinos and/or slot-machine palaces like the Saratoga Springs racino.
Have busloads of New Yorkers been running off to these out-of-state places? You bet. Would they stay near home to gamble if the opportunity presented itself? Perhaps. But the days where New York could count on casinos luring in outsiders, or even downstaters to remote upstate counties like Oneida, Sullivan and Tioga seem to have passed. And for a big casino to be successful, it needs to draw patrons from hundreds of miles away.
Competition for the gambling dollar has increased in other ways — including in New York, where the Legislature is planning to increase the number of hours that its racinos and addictive Quick Draw video game can be played. And the effects of over-saturation, not to mention a weak economy, have been obvious. For example, the Mashantucket Pequot Indian tribe, which owns Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, is having to renegotiate $2 billion in debt to stay afloat.
More than anything, casinos built in remote upstate areas — even not-so-remote ones like Saratoga — would have to depend largely on local residents to support them. They’d provide jobs for locals and revenue for the state, but they’d also encourage a devastating increase in compulsive gambling, targeting low-income people desperate for a way out. Gambling can be like other addictions, forcing victims to steal and deprive their families in order to finance their habit.
And the state is too broke — not to mention the obvious conflict of interest — to pay for programs to combat that.
Opening casinos via constitutional amendment would take a minimum of two years just to get approved by successive state Legislatures; then a statewide referendum would have to be held. After that, voters in the respective host counties would have to weigh in. And only then could the state seek bids to open and run such facilities.
Given the length of time it’s taken just to get the Aqueduct racino up and running, the state probably couldn’t expect to see a nickel from casino gambling for at least a decade.
Dealing with the state’s perennial budget problems, caused by another addiction — to irresponsible spending — seems like a much better bet.