Casinos May be Worth the Gamble

The juxtaposition of the comments wasn’t the best.

Gov. Deval Patrick was addressing the Mass. Municipal Assoc. and discussing the state’s fiscal health and ways to improve it, when he offered that he would keep an open mind on legalized slot machines and casinos, and that they may eventually help the state keep its budget in the black, or at least out of the red — a stern challenge given projections for a billion-dollar shortfall to result from slowing tax revenues.

We’ve never preferred to view casino gambling as a budget-balancing option. Instead, we’ve looked at it as a form of economic development, one that has the potential to raise the profile of a city or region, bringing new jobs and the potential for tourism dollars and hospitality-related businesses. And we’ve long taken the view that casinos either make sense or they don’t, and that their practicality for the Commonwealth shouldn’t be a function of the state’s fiscal well-being.

But the reality of the situation is that casinos and slot machines at race tracks have always been viewed as a vehicle for revenue for the state’s cities and towns, many of which, especially older urban areas like Springfield and Holyoke, are struggling and looking to the state for some form of help. The phrase Patrick used when referring to legalized gambling was “money left on the table,” and by that, he was referring to the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars that stream out of the Bay State each year and into Connecticut, New York, and other states that permit casino gambling.

His point is well taken, and we hope that Patrick and the Legislature give casino gambling another hard, thoughtful look.

Why? Because while it’s easy to say that there are better ways to raise revenue and create jobs, it’s harder to back up those statements. Tax hikes are always possible, but they are never popular, and few on Beacon Hill have the stomach for them. Nor do they have a fondness for cuts to existing programs.

Meanwhile, no one really knows from where the next load of jobs will come. As economists told BusinessWest recently, there are real doubts here and elsewhere about whether bioscience, biotechnology manufacturing, alternative energy ventures, or other sectors will ever become large or steady sources of employment, and traditional manufacturing jobs continue to decline as companies leave for states with a lower cost of doing business.

These realities may be enough to prompt Patrick, who opposed legalizing slot machines during last year’s campaign, to at least initiate some new dialogue on the subject.

While casinos are not the answer for every community or region — we are skeptical about placing them in large urban centers like Springfield, for example — there are scenarios in which they could work. Locally, the Quaboag area is a good example. This is a region that has lost a number of manufacturing jobs in recent years and is obviously struggling to replace them, with tourism and service-sector positions being the best hopes at the moment.

Meanwhile, although progress has been made in a broad effort to give the region an identity and to lure tourists from Boston and other areas, many people still consider Quaboag to be at least one turnpike exit too far. A casino at or near the Palmer interchange would certainly change that equation, and quickly.

Franklin County, Mount Tom in Holyoke, and perhaps some areas of Berkshire County are other places where a casino could, if it was done right, complement existing attractions and businesses and bring progress in the form of jobs and commerce to the area.

There are social costs that go along with casinos — gambling impacts all groups, but especially poorer constituencies, and many become addicted. These costs, many of which are already being felt with casinos only an hour or two away in other states, must be weighed, along with the potential benefits.

Patrick says he’s willing to keep an open mind. We hope the state’s Legislature can do the same.