It’s Saturday afternoon, and cars crawl along Broadway in Revere. Slick placards obscurely urge “Vote Yes for Revere.” Signs with a more homemade look less obscurely push an opposing message: “CasiNo!” Passions have been high in the lead-up to Tuesday’s vote, making Revere the latest community to have to come to grips with whether a casino in its midst brings salvation or destruction.
This is Revere’s second bite at the apple. Last November both it and East Boston voted on whether to allow a casino at Suffolk Downs, which straddles both communities. Eastie said no; Revere said yes. The upshot of that was for proponents to cleverly shift the entire casino into Revere. The state’s gaming commission agreed there was a sufficiently different proposal on the table. Hence today’s vote.
Yes or no in Revere, though, the quest for casino gambling in Massachusetts looks to be a muddle. Casinos have been the dream of any number of state officials for decades, driven largely by claims they would be a boon for state coffers and the economy. When the idea picked up steam a few years ago, objectors seemed in the fringe. Today the mood appears to have shifted. The East Boston vote was a shock, as was a turndown that same day in Palmer. A possible ballot question this year asks voters to reverse the law.
I have no particular problem with gambling. If 7-Eleven stores want to put slot machines in a back corner, by all means let them. There really is no substantive difference between those and the variety of offerings pushed by the Massachusetts Lottery. Sure, gambling is a fraud that preys on the addicted and poor. But we already crossed that moral Rubicon 42 years ago when we first authorized “The Game.”
But casino gambling is an entirely different animal. The Massachusetts gaming law concentrates gambling in just four locations, at levels far more intense than the action lottery retailers ever see. That concentration is necessary because the entire idea is to create a number of small monopolies with exclusive control over their geography. One casino is set for eastern Massachusetts, one for southeast and a third for the west. On top of that the law allows one slot machine parlor.
Why so few? Fees and taxes. Later this week, the gaming commission is expected to announce its choice for a slot parlor. The price of that license is a cool $25 million. And casino licenses are expected to sell for at least $85 million. On top of that, the state expects to exact a tax of 49 percent on gaming revenues from slot parlors and 25 percent from casinos. It looks like a great deal for the tax collector, and it is.
Others less so.
Casino patrons will be the first victims. To cover their fees, taxes, and the host of goodies promised to the towns they’re in, casino operators will have to generate a huge amount of business simply to pay their bills. The only way to do that is to aggressively solicit customers and, when they come in through the doors, make sure they spend as much as possible. Entertainment centers? Not really. Everything would just be a come-on for gaming and, given the state’s piled-on fees and taxes, a bad deal at that. Illegal bookies offer a better return.
Host communities too will be victims. Spread out one kind of business all over the state, and it’s easily absorbed. But concentrate it in one place — as Boston’s Combat Zone once did with sexually oriented businesses — and the area is overwhelmed. Just as the Combat Zone became synonymous with a whole host of social ills, so towns with casinos will find themselves unalterably changed.
No matter the result in Revere, however, the casinos will eventually find homes. Everett has already said yes, and others may as well. Enough money and enough promises can do that. On the days the gaming commission announces which towns have won casino licenses there will doubtless be much celebrating. Those not awarded one will think themselves losers but over time, I suspect, they will find that not getting the roll of the dice was luck itself.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.