Gambling’s pot of gold remains elusive

While Maine’s voters embraced expanding the state’s Medicaid rolls last week — without any funding to pay for it — they clearly understood the ramifications of a third Maine casino.

Too many states are looking to expand gaming, gambling and lotteries to fill rapidly expanding holes in their budgets. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland and Pennsylvania are all working to expand their income from gambling, even as the data suggests there is a finite amount of money to be plundered from those willing to risk it all for the big jackpot.

Connecticut, with two of the largest casinos in the country, just approved a third. The state is billions in debt and looking to capitalize on the busloads of seniors and other tourists willing to pump up state coffers with their retirement checks. Pennsylvania, riding a boom of income from the fracking wells in the western part of the state, is spreading slot machines to truck stops and airports in search of even more revenue. While competition from nearby states thins out the gambling revenue stream, why does the push for more venues continue? The key component is that the spending appetite of each of these states cannot be controlled.

Mainers recognized that the proposed York County Casino was an ill-conceived project from the get-go. Yet, the state of Maine also is guilty of seeking additional revenue from so-called sin taxes in order to meet expanding Medicaid programs, school funding and social service programs. Maine’s budget counts on casino revenue. The state also has renegotiated its liquor tax, increased its hotel taxes and is seeking to maximize legalized marijuana taxes at a time when this income is at best a guess. This dependency on shaky economics is really little different from the gambler’s dependency on his luck, the drinker’s buzz or marijuana’s high — all of these revenue sources could easily go up in smoke.

The pot of gold is elusive. Anybody still going to Atlantic City to gamble? Not many. New Jersey’s gambling revenues are half what they were 10 years ago — a message every state needs to consider.

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