The views expressed in this commentary are the opinion of the commentator and don’t necessarily reflect the views of WKMS.
Advocates for a constitutional amendment to legalize casinos in Kentucky have had an up-and-down week. The proposal cleared a major legislative hurdle in the Senate’s State and Local Government Committee Wednesday, only to fall in the full Senate the next day. Governor Steve Beshear has vowed to continue the effort, but the measure’s primary sponsor, Republican Senator Damon Thayer has thrown his hands up over the matter. Commentator Richard Nelson believes that’s just as well. He says casino legislation in the Commonwealth is a sweet deal for the elite, but a bitter one for the local communities in which the casinos would be built.
They say love is blind, but when it’s coupled with the prospect of landing on easy street, it sometimes appears downright irresistible. On Valentine’s Day, Governor Beshear, flanked by several senators in the Capitol Rotunda, channeled all the touchy feelies remaining in Frankfort and proposed legislation that would bring seven casinos to Kentucky. It’s the sweetheart deal of the session, not for the communities that would be saddled with the casinos, but for an already wealthy industry that is more interested in their bottom line than in the well-being of community.
The biggest argument in this decade-long battle for casino expansion rests on the idea that Kentuckians are already gambling at casinos in neighboring states. According to Gov. Beshear, "That money is being used to pay for all kinds of services and public infrastructure in those other states. As it stands, we might as well be backing trucks up to the Ohio River and dumping our people's money into the water. We need to keep that money at home." Fair points. But scratch the surface of those arguments, and their persuasiveness is only skin deep. If anything, it becomes clear that if casinos get their hooks into Kentucky’s economy, any trucks laden with dollars will be from casinos hauling their loot out of state.
Atlantic City, New Jersey is a case study of what casinos leave behind. Within four years of opening in 1978, one-third of all retail businesses closed. Restaurants declined from 243 to 146 within ten years. And by 1997, only 66 independent restaurants and taverns remained. Whenever a corporate giant is granted a monopoly, there is an uneven playing field where the air is sucked out of the proverbial room and discretionary dollars sucked from the pockets of the mathematically challenged. How many Atlantic City “Mom and Pop” restaurants could offer free or discounted meals? How many independent hotels could offer ridiculously sweet deals on rooms? My point exactly. Nor could they offer free tokens and poker chips to bring in new customers because they didn’t have a multi-million dollar casino permission slip from the government.
An industry model that is based on getting rich quick, one that bills wagering wealth as legitimate entertainment, and one that elevates hopes and dreams but more often than not disappoints, is sure to leave bitterness for the losers. In fact, the degree of disappointment can be measured in an increase in crime. Between 1977 and 1990,crime increased in Atlantic City by 230 percent, and within three years of casinos, it was ranked number one in per capita crime in the nation.
After a carjacking and murder at the Trump Taj Mahal parking garage in September 2011, a CBS News affiliate pulled police reports from a two-year time period and found Trump’s casino had 368 reports of larceny theft, 25 calls for aggravated assault, three for rape and four for murder. Police received the greatest number of calls from the Tropicana Casino – 506 reports of larceny theft, 54 calls for aggravated assault, nine for rape, and three for murder. Thirteen hundred calls for police service were made in that two-year period —hardly the track record that will garner any business “Friend of Law Enforcement” honors.
To be fair, Atlantic City casinos have built substantial infrastructure. High-rises are donned with flashy signs on the outside and decked with glitz and glamour on the inside. Headliners draw crowds, and high-rollers come to town and spend big. But think big picture. Are casinos the kind of foundation for a stable economy where the little guy and entrepreneur can compete? Are they ever a sound revenue source for which governments should depend? And when did a casino town ever win the “best place to raise my children” award? These are questions that Christian County residents will have to answer since it is on the short list of possible locations for an off-site track. Citizens should be wary by now of the Siren song promising a new revenue stream, but caving to such political seduction is more likely to land a good community on the rocks in the long run.
Richard Nelson is a Trigg County magistrate and policy analyst for The Family Foundation. He resides in Cadiz with his wife and children.