DeLeo goes all in — with a story to tell
HE DIDN’T REPRISE Senate President Therese Murray’s one-word policy pronouncement when she spoke before the same group last year and declared, in response to a question about bringing casinos to Massachusetts, “Ka-ching!” But House Speaker Robert DeLeo did his legislative counterpart one better this morning when he not only laid down the welcome mat for casinos and slots, but also cast it terms that appeal to family pride and the American work ethic — not the something-for-nothing mindset that casinos cultivate and count on to succeed.
The battle over casinos is always a battle to control the narrative. If the narrative stays focused on jobs and putting people who are hurting and in real economic distress back to work, proponents win. If it’s about predatory gambling and the state partnering up with rich casino moguls to pick the pockets of the lower-income residents who will disproportionately be the ones dumping their paychecks into the slots DeLeo wants installed at the state’s four racetracks (two of which are in his Winthrop-based district), the prospects could get, well, dicey.
Steering clear of Murray’s imagery of someone hitting it big with a one-armed bandit, DeLeo instead told the crowd about his father and the dignity of honest work. His dad worked as a maitre’d at the restaurant at Suffolk Downs near their Winthrop home. The jobs at the track “may not have been very glamorous,” DeLeo said, but they “supported families.” And jobs, he wanted everyone at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast to know, is what his pending proposal for two full-blown casinos along with slots at the tracks is all about.
And not only the jobs building and staffing the new gambling outfits. It’s also about jobs that will come from a pool of money to aid Massachusetts manufacturers and support vocational training at community colleges, job-creating initiatives DeLeo wants to fund with a portion of the one-time licensing fees from casinos.
The Speaker, as the saying goes, is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts. He can make a case for jobs if he thinks that trumps all else. But whether state government should expand gambling most certainly is a philosophical debate. With Massachusetts casinos, we might retain some of the dollars that now flow to Connecticut. But we’ll also be creating new problem gamblers, as studies show that compulsive gambling rates as much as double in the area immediately surrounding casinos. (I wrote about this phenomenon in “Hitting the Jackpot,” in the Spring 2005 issue of CW.) What’s more, problem gamblers account for a sizable chunk of casino and slot gambling revenues, making them not just an unfortunate byproduct of the introduction of casinos, but also a key part of their business model.It seems more than a little ironic that expanded gambling is being trumpeted as part of the strategy to pull the state out of the economic ditch, since our troubles were caused by mainstream elements of our economy and financial institutions buying into the casino culture. “There’s a reason why people have called our economic crisis ‘casino capitalism,’” says Les Bernal, a former State House staffer who now heads Stop Predatory Gambling, a national advocacy group, “It was an economic program based on financial gimmicks and predatory practices, creating the lure of free money to Americans.”
Casinos will no doubt create some jobs. They will also no doubt cost some people theirs. As the debate heats up, it’s important to put all the cards on the table.