A state commissioN is currently studying whether the Commonwealth should legalize and regulate online gambling — poker, slot machines, and other casino games. It’s a huge temptation for state officials: Legal online gambling, with a cut going to the state, represents a possible new revenue stream at a time when Massachusetts faces constant cost pressures. Only three other states (Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey) allow online casino games, meaning Massachusetts could be an early adapter.
But it should resist the temptation. This page has previously supported the controlled sale of basic lottery products online — that is, allowing customers in an
increasingly cashless society to buy Mega Millions, Powerball, Keno, and scratch tickets over the Internet. Opening the door to the multibillion dollar industry
of online slot machines and poker, though, would go too far.
It may seem like a small difference, but the distinction is between meeting the existing demand for gambling and inducing new demand in the face of changing trends. And the lottery is controlled by the state, while online gambling would presumably be a private-sector enterprise. In a state with such striking income disparities, it would be a mistake to put out the welcome mat for a for-profit industry intent on enticing more residents to gamble.
“Young people aren’t going to brick-and-mortar casinos, which should be a good thing!” said Les Bernal, national director of Stop Predatory Gambling, a national anti-casino group. “This whole effort is about getting an entire new generation of youngsters hooked on gambling.” Indeed, research shows that millennials are not going to brick-and-mortar casinos — they just don’t think it’s fun.
Online gambling also yields none of the ancillary benefits that supporters of legalized gambling promised when the state legalized casinos in 2011. Nobody books a hotel room to play online poker, or goes to a show between stints at an online slot machine. And the state’s careful efforts to address problem gaming could easily falter in cyberspace, where it’s harder to flag underage or compulsive gamblers.
The state’s experience in land-based casinos should also be a warning. More than five years after legalizing casinos, Massachusetts is still waiting for the first to open. The state’s slots parlor, at Plainridge, fell short of the revenue forecasts it submitted when applying for its license. Those disappointing results mirror national trends: Last year, the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York-Albany looked at the fiscal benefits from gambling and found them lacking. “Gains are short-lived and create longer-term fiscal challenges for the states,” the report notes.
Finally, between the lottery and the casinos, the state and Massachusetts municipalities already rely to an unhealthy degree on gambling revenue. The state is putting itself at the mercy of an industry that’s as faddish and cyclical as any other. Expanding into online casinos might seem like an easy fiscal fix, but it would only put the Commonwealth deeper into thrall to the gambling industry.