Slots don’t cure all deficits

By Alison Lobron

The bright lights of casinos have entranced Beacon Hill for years, but a new report from the American Gaming Association offers a stark reminder that glittering slot machines do not cure all budget deficits. The AGA, a trade group that represents Big Gambling’s interests, issued its annual survey of the industry and reports that for the second year in a row, revenues are down.  Even as new casinos were opening, revenues fell 5.5 percent in 2009; in the industry’s overall contributions to municipalities and states fell 1.6 percent.

The AGA is quick to blame the poor showing on Americans’ “shrinking travel and leisure budgets.” But as I described in the Spring Issue of CommonWealth, the real picture is more complex: in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for example, a new casino is struggling to fulfill its promise to the community because its owner, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, has yet to funnel enough money into the project to attract out-of-town visitors. Meanwhile, some of the numbers in the AGA’s report are of particular interest as the Senate prepares to take up the issue this spring. (The House passed a bill authorizing new casinos and slot machines in April.)   The states hardest hit by the downturn were the states where gaming is most entrenched, and casinos do not have the thrill of the new:  Nevada and New Jersey.   That should be a reminder to senators that all the revenue predictions for Massachusetts are based on where competing casinos are today – and don’t account for the day when our casinos are run-down and familiar, like Atlantic City, and we face newer, shinier competition from, say, Brattleboro, Vermont.