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What you need to know for 08/18/2017

State’s economic plan is a gamble

State’s economic plan is a gamble

Even if neither of us has ever frequented a casino or purchased a lottery ticket, you and I have a g

Even if neither of us has ever frequented a casino or purchased a lottery ticket, you and I have a gambling problem.

It’s not that if were we to do so, we would develop an insatiable appetite for gaming that would deplete our personal savings, take food out of our kids’ mouths and place us in the depths of irreversible debt.

It’s not even the obvious one — the one we’ve been discussing almost ad nauseam since the state’s voters approved the siting of a handful of casinos around the state. However, there is a familiar pattern at work here that is manifest in the run-up to the siting process we are in the midst of.

The proponents of casino expansion have constructed what seems like an irresistible scenario — a perpetual motion, revenue-producing machine that will help to pull economically struggling communities out of their doldrums and let them experience the more comfortable financial condition that has eluded them for decades.

Whether in hope or desperation, we witness the spectacle of localities so situated virtually grasping at this straw with something less than completely dignified zeal.

They seem oblivious to the well-documented experience of others who have answered this siren’s song with much the same vigor and trust, only to experience quite another reality.

Clearly, our state’s increasing reliance on gambling — with its lotteries and their omnipresent ads exhorting everyone to play, and soon its five new casinos — to generate tax revenue and employment opportunities is hardly an example of cleverly divining creative solutions to knotty problems.

However, it is fitting that the state should have finally come around full circle to the “hard” gambling industry itself because much of what passes for its economic development policy for a long time has been just that — gambling.

Of course, the counter to such a bold, critical pronouncement would be that it is deceptively glib, unduly harsh and far too cynical.

Advocates for these policies would prefer the term “investment.” They rightfully argue that one needs to take into account that there is always a degree of risk in choosing to invest in an idea, product, business or industry, and that risk does imply at least the potential for failure, even failure itself.

Fair enough, but wouldn’t a prudent investor keep a scorecard? Would he not establish a clear set of parameters by which to judge the degree of success or failure of each of his investments? Would he not learn from the experience and make better investments with time? And, if he were using other people’s money, would he not be required to report to them regularly on the status of each such investment?

Finally, don’t investors expect a return on their investment and seek commitments that make that return more, rather than less, likely?

The fly in the ointment here is that the state apparently does none of these things, at least not in any methodical way one can discern. Describing how the state’s investment decisions are made with the term “wholly political” is probably too facile and cynical. But in the absence of any visibly rigorous standards to countervail that impression, it is understandable if some make that conclusive leap.

The pursuit of other big splash “magic pill” solutions like scoring a major single industry employer — usually by distorting the tax system with “economic development incentives” and local property and sales tax abatements — generally has reaped far fewer than the advertised benefits.

One cannot even label these claims “promises” because there is usually no penalty to the politicians or the putative “job creators” for failing to follow through on them — except, of course, for the communities that placed their trust in them.

Experience has shown that large companies with an outsized influence in the community have the capacity to decimate the latter — and they often do. Ask Schenectady or Poughkeepsie. Will Malta be on this list, too? It's early yet, but many of the benefits touted there are already looking illusory.

The serial disappointments our communities have experienced by hewing to what has become the standard economic development model should cause us to re-evaluate.

One alternative could be to pivot our investments toward locally based, smaller businesses that understand and care more about our communities, deserve our support, and will — in both the short and long runs — leave us with a healthier local economy.

This is where you and I come in. This is not some wealthy financier’s cash that’s being thrown around. It’s not even the government’s. It’s ours. We’re the investors.

Or, maybe we’re the gamblers.

John Figliozzi lives in Halfmoon and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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