Phil Primack: Casino chorus sings from shaky data

By Phil Primack

They’re playing your song again, Clyde.

PerspectivesButton Every time casino gambling tunes up on Beacon Hill, the background beat is almost always the same: If we ka-ching it in Massachusetts, we’ll recapture all that money being gambled away by Bay Staters elsewhere in New England. “To see that over $900 million leaves the Commonwealth every year and goes to Connecticut and Rhode Island for gaming, I think that even if we could pick up $700 million of that, we would all take that,” Senate President Therese Murray said last week, in the latest reprise of the casino chorus.

That $900 million figure has become Massachusetts’s own magic data bullet. Except it’s based on a single source — research by University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Professors Clyde Barrow — that has been called into doubt, though apparently not by the Senate president. (Former House Speaker Sal DiMasi was skeptical, but the new speaker seems far more willing to believe.)

Gov. Deval Patrick based the revenue and economic claims in his casino proposal last year on the book of Barrow. But as detailed in the Winter 2008 issue of CommonWealth (“Playing the Numbers”), Barrow’s methodology and thus his conclusions (and the fact that his Center for Policy Analysis at UMass-Dartmouth has received funding from pro-casino interests) raise serious questions. And if the Barrow baseline is wrong, so too are the numbers and political arguments based on it.

Casino Since 2004, Barrow's “patron origin analysis,” which mainly consists of surveying cars in out-of-state casino parking lots, has consistently found that about one-third of the patrons at Connecticut’s Foxwoods casino are from Massachusetts. Ergo, one-third of money gambled at Foxwoods is “from” Massachusetts. Ergo, a Massachusetts casino will recapture all that money.

But as the article noted, Mickey Brown, Foxwoods’s former chief executive for much of the 1990s, said the casino’s own surveys — which were more methodical than Barrow’s — “consistently found that about 22 percent of our patron count was from Massachusetts.” Connecticut’s other casino, Mohegan Sun, also pegs its Massachusetts patronage at about 22 percent. Even if Barrow’s higher number was right, to equate patronage percentage with revenue share it misleading anyway. A single high roller from Hong Kong, who doesn’t even have a car in the parking lot, spends a whole lot more than, say, 100 casual day trippers from Massachusetts.

Without doubt, a lot of Bay Staters spend a lot of dollars at out-of-state casinos. Also without doubt, Massachusetts could reclaim some of that money with its own casinos. But how much — and at what costs to the Lottery, local businesses, law enforcement and other aspects of society — must be carefully analyzed, not magically presumed.

Phil Primack is a contributing writer for CommonWealth magazine. Creative Commons photo by Old Shoe Woman.