I have a short piece in Governing's November issue about how the Kansas legislature this year passed a bill that will make theirs the first state to own its own casinos. Since then, I've noticed gambling is a topic of debate in a number of states. Which makes me wonder -- why?
In Maryland, Governor Martin O'Malley has called a special session on taxes and a proposal on slot machines that has been fought over in Annapolis for the last several years. In Kentucky, opposition to gambling has become the centerpiece of Governor Ernie Fletcher's flailing reelection bid.
Similar debates have occurred in recent years in Indiana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina -- you name it. The pattern is usually the same -- years of arguing ending up with the pro-gambling forces winning out.
Which makes me wonder why gambling opponents bother. I know the arguments against state-run gambling. It's a business the state shouldn't be in, there are moral qualms about it, gambling represents a regressive tax against the poor and causes serious social damage.
Yet now the biggest argument that proponents trot out is that gambling is everywhere -- so why should our state's potential revenues go to some neighboring state? That was one of the arguments used in Kansas. If Kansans are gambling anyway, why not have them do it at home?
It's true that voters in Wichita recently turned down the chance to host one of the state's upcoming casinos. But in most places, at this point, it's probably time to concede that "it's happening everywhere anyway" is a winning argument. State-run gambling has become so pervasive that only the holdouts look like suckers. Wouldn't Memphis have profited by allowing casinos, rather than watching its residents and so much local money drive down to Tunica?
I'm sympathetic to the anti-gambling arguments. At the dawn of my voting life in 1984 I cast a ballot against the ballot measure that created the lottery in my home state of California. Yet, at this point, if a referendum were to come up in Maryland, where I live -- the most likely outcome of our local slots debate -- I would assume that its passage is inevitable and worry most that the state cut the best deal it could with the gambling interests.
That's probably the best approach to take to the issue overall.