At this afternoon’s Senate Committee on Special Legislation and Veterans Affairs hearing in State House room 310, the committee will be bringing S2695 back from the “held for further study” abyss for consideration alongside H7543, which passed the House on March 6. The legislation would seek voter approval of what would essentially be a full casino run as a quasi-governmental agency under the shared authority of the Division of State Lottery and the Department of Business Regulation within the Newport Grand facility (formerly Jai Alai).
The state would gain broad control over the operations of table games, including (among much else) the right to:
Determine the number, type, placement and arrangement of casino-gaming games, tables and sites within the facility
Have approval rights over matters relating to the employment of individuals to be involved, directly or indirectly, with the operation of casino gaming at Newport Grand
The words of Kevin Williamson come quickly to mind, from his recent National Review article “Play to Extinction: Gambling is a racket, not a tool of economic development” (subscription required):
They had better think twice about what they are getting themselves into. The issue of gambling is not a question of rah-rah libertarians vs. no-no bluestockings: Nobody who looks seriously at the nexus between politics and gambling could possibly conclude that what is happening in Atlantic City, in Pennsylvania, on the Indian reservations, or in the lottery racket represents the operation of the free market. It is a cartel in most cases and a monopoly in many, all with the blessings of the state. The arrangement, in the words of one scholarly study of casinos in Montana, leaves government “a dependent partner in the business of gambling.” If gambling advocates were simply making a principled case that putative adults have the right to entertain themselves with their own money according to their own tastes (or, let’s be serious, lack thereof), then their argument would be persuasive. But what is in fact happening is that politicians smell money, and so government itself is getting into the game, taking gambling to be a fruitful model of economic development.
Williamson has gone on to describe the false glitz of Atlantic City and the devastation that Big Gambling can cause, at least when joined with Big Government. He quotes from a California Research Bureau study of the New Jersey city:
[Casino gambling] has done little to revitalize the rest of Atlantic City and its business community. Atlantic City has been described as two cities. One is the casinos, and the other is a city of boarded-up buildings with a unemployed minority work force. Gambling has largely failed in achieving the objectives of job growth for local residents and city-wide economic development.
Rhode Island would layer another factor into the experiment: that of size. As casinos proliferate — from Newport Grand to Twin River to other facilities elsewhere — the entire state could quickly come to resemble beyond-the-boardwalk AC. The state coffers may profit, but that’s a distinct question from whether the people of Rhode Island will.
The problem isn’t necessarily that the culture of gambling will degrade the state (although that is a legitimate concern). Rather, it’s that, as public officials, both elected and appointed, prioritize the many interests on which they have an effect, their direct control over casinos and the disproportionate amount of money that the government takes in through them will crowd out other policies of broader concern to Rhode Islanders.