Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

As sure as it is being anticipated, the gambling industry will be inching its ravenous claws into this year’s General Assembly, scheduled to start in January.

This is hardly new. Attempts to expand gambling in Kentucky have been a constant back-and-forth for decades now, each time the assembly refusing to give sway to a predatory industry that promise profits, but begets problems. The most recent attempt was made in 2012, and even then, Governor Beshear failed to pass his key legislative item in the Senate.

In the days of the Roman Empire, the masses would gather as agents of the state would perform in circuses and distribute bread. It was meant to convey a sense of entertainment, with the government providing outlets for its people during such hard times where survival meant scarcity. But concealed just below the operations of Rome was the motive of reminding its citizens just how entrapped and dependent they really were.

Fast-forward to today and the same episode of “circuses and bread” is replaying itself in new form. Gambling is a mere hat-tip to the circus and bread duo that’s brought out to pacify the demands of a revenue-hungry legislature, one marked by explosive pension obligations, ever-expanding healthcare rolls due to Medicaid, and an educational fund that lags behind sistering states. Gambling sells itself as a fix-all to every problem. And meanwhile, the thrills and frills of gambling entice the unwitting, and usually underprivileged citizens, into bright colors, disorienting darkness, and the wonderment at cashing in big.

The same could be said of gambling’s ability to entrap and, in turn ensnare both government and its citizens to the unending cycle of personal loss and revenue addition on the part of the state. 

And this comes via the legislature, who violates its very first rule when gambling comes to town: Do No Harm.

When will our legislators learn the truth about gambling? When will they put the needs of families before the needs of a cash-starved state government? When will the need for government responsibility reckon with its own recklessness?  When will they recognize that the promises of gambling over exacerbate and overextend government malaise?

The smoke-and-mirrors of Kentucky businesses offering wide-eyed anticipation of all that gambling could bring to Kentucky is, too, a farce. “Jobs!” they cry, but what we know is that jobs that gambling brings with it aren’t effective economic producers.

“Education will be funded!” they scream, only to learn that the revenues that come to education from gambling rely on taking monies from the typically lower educated and funneling it upwards.

“People are free, let them do what they want,” echoes the government legislator, unaware that the “aye!” he offers in the support of gambling assures that somewhere, someone will be less free, and more entangled by personal harm that comes from abuse, bankruptcy, and the host of other social blights that follow.

Gambling plays to the worst of human vices. It promises all, and delivers nothing. And there stands the legislature, playing puppet to Caesar, offering bread, but really giving stones.