Tell me you haven’t had this experience: You’re in line at your local convenience store. There are a bunch of people ahead of you, including an elderly woman who leaves with cat food in one hand, stacks of lottery tickets in the other. And what you’re hoping is that the Purina is for the cat, not her.
Gambling for government is everywhere you turn in the Commonwealth. There are scratch tickets, Mega Millions, keno screens, horse racing — and soon casinos and a slots parlor. But the debate over the new gaming proposals has excluded what we already have — and it shouldn’t. The question is not do we want casinos, but do we want the whole gambling enchilada?
The Massachusetts State Lottery, the center of it all, is 42 years old. And it’s number one in the nation in many categories: first in prize payout and lowest administrative overhead, but unfortunately we’re also first in the United States, by far, in per capita lottery wagering. The state lottery sold close to $5 billion worth of products in the 2013 fiscal year, which means every man, woman, and child in the Commonwealth spent an average of nearly $700. (Yes, people from outside Massachusetts buy tickets here, but that $700 includes in-state toddlers — most of whom don’t yet bet.)
And guess whom most of the money comes from? People who can’t afford to lose it. In Chelsea, where per capita income is just under $15,000, $41.4 million was spent on the lottery last year. That works out to more than $1,100 per resident. By contrast, in Weston, where the per capita income is roughly $260,000, it’s only $44 for every resident. Anyone have Robin Hood’s cell number?
By one critical standard, the lottery’s been a huge success. Enough money has been gambled and lost to send piles of it to cities and towns, almost a billion dollars last year alone. And tax-phobic legislators couldn’t be happier. So pleased, that two decades after that first lottery drawing at Faneuil Hall, they legalized keno. Ever played that? I hadn’t until I went to a legendary Italian restaurant outside Fall River. Every few minutes, there was cheering by some diners and sighing by others. At first I assumed it was differing opinions on the cook, who was clearly a descendant of the Boyardee family. But it wasn’t. It was reaction to keno outcomes.
As part of my effort to sample all kinds of gambling and since I hadn’t bought a scratch ticket in ages, I purchased a brand-new $30 World Class Millions card with many chances to win. Cynicism gave way to a rush of excitement when I just missed winning 30 times.
I then made my first trip to Suffolk Downs on Preakness Day in mid-May. First, the positive: The staff couldn’t be friendlier; no one wants to see hundreds of these workers lose their jobs. But joy is not a word one would associate with the racing fans I encountered that day. Nor would it apply to those at either of my two casino forays. Reno felt like a homeless shelter with slots, and my trip to a much spiffier slots room in Connecticut was not much more uplifting. Some button-pushing patrons appeared to be having fun; most looked pretty distressed. (Imagine how they’ll feel if online gambling is legalized and bettors can lose money at home, in their pajamas.)
But the allure of shows with big stars, inexpensive food and drink, jobs and new revenue without raising taxes trumped the fact that closer casinos mean more addiction and more inequity in how we fund government. By my math, a half-point hike in the income tax would raise as much money for communities as the lottery, and do it much more fairly. In the meantime, nearly three years after Beacon Hill rolled the dice, the only real jobs that have been created have been for lawyers.
That may be why recent polls show the public’s enthusiasm for casinos to be on the decline. When I asked the governor on the radio last month if he’d lost that loving feeling for gambling palaces, he said he hadn’t but had “never seen this as an economic panacea or as the centerpiece of our economic growth strategy.” He did say a casino in the city gave him “heartburn” and that he’d have preferred it on an island in the harbor. He meant Boston Harbor. Many Bay Staters would prefer San Francisco Bay.
The bottom line is that casinos are not the bottom line, just a part of it. If the state’s highest court allows voters to give a thumbs up or down on them on the November ballot, we should consider casinos as part of a Massachusetts gambling universe, not in isolation. And if they don’t, legislators should have another epiphany. Maybe embrace the Charlie Baker plan of 2010, one casino, then let’s see about more. Or if they’re feeling bold, simply decide that what happens in Vegas should stay in Vegas. Whatever voters or legislators do, they shouldn’t just be thinking of the promised pot of gold, but of that old woman ahead of me in line at the 7-Eleven.
MORE FROM THE MAGAZINE: