Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

Businessman Billy Harper jumped onto the casino expansion bandwagon last week and called for casino legalization to recapture revenue lost to other states and use it to build Kentucky roads and schools. Sounds awfully close to a remake of the golden oldie we heard back in the late ‘80’s that the lottery was going to fix and fund our schools. And we all got coal in our stockings for believing it.

Harper, who is part of a growing pro-gambling expansion coalition called Kentucky Wins!, said he opposed expansion in 2007 when he ran for governor because he “did not believe the benefits would outweigh the costs.” He’s convinced now that gambling benefits society. But I wonder if Harper has incorporated gambling principles into his business practices?  Why not take some operating capital and put it on a roulette wheel? Or plug a few grand of seed money into a slot machine? After all “Somebody’s gonna win, might as well be you.”

If gambling is an economic winner, why aren’t financial advisors telling their clients they should take some of their hard earned retirement portfolio and lay it down on the craps table? Why don’t teachers tell their students that gambling is a great way to make a living? After all, there are professional gamblers. That’s ridiculous you say. Then why is it any more reasonable that the state government should encourage gambling amongst the populace and depend on their losses as a new revenue source?

Oh, that’s right, other states are doing it and they’re raking in Kentucky dollars hand over fist. They’re also stuck with the problems. Many casinos act like an economic black hole, sucking all the life out of a local economy. They did in Atlantic City, New Jersey where 40 percent of small businesses closed within 10 years after expansion. Yes, they have huge hotels and a glitzy strip, but step a block away from the façade built on human losses and one enters a warzone littered with high crime and decrepit buildings. Atlantic City is anything but the family friendly destination it once was.

The argument that the surrounding states have casinos and are prospering is like little Johnny whining  “but mom, all my friends are doing it.” Just because another state is doing it, does not mean it is right or even sound public policy. Las Vegas has legalized prostitution. Anybody ready to promote that in Kentucky?

The unasked question in this fairy tale of promises: Is gambling a good thing? For people? For the economy? For government revenue? It’s certainly not good for some people. Between two to four percent of gamblers are classified as pathological or problem gamblers, but they can spawn enormous problems. According to Baylor Economics professor Earl Grinols, the average pathological gambler will cost society  more than $10,000 for lost time and productivity on the job, law enforcement, and health problems. Gambling isn’t so fun when one loses. And the casino Scrooges could care less once someone has lost it all.

Pinning our economic hopes on casinos is the adult version of believing there really is a Santa Claus. They promise the world but end up delivering a White Elephant, or a shark.

If the first object of good government is to protect life then a close second must be to prevent predatory businesses from sucking life from our weakest and most vulnerable. My proposal is that Kentucky will win if it defeats the specter masquerading under the banner Kentucky Wins!