Massachusetts Has a Gambling Problem

We’ve done a lot of dumb things in Massachusetts. We financed the Big Dig, hailed Boston City Hall as an architectural gem, and even, for a brief time, claimed Dane Cook as our own. So it follows that when the state legislature convenes this month, one of the top items on the agenda is expected to be legalizing slot machines at the state’s horse and greyhound tracks. This is House Speaker Bob DeLeo’s idea—and it is a very, very dumb one.

For starters, dog racing will cease to exist in Massachusetts on January 1, thanks to a 2008 ballot referendum that outlawed the sport. Furthermore, though DeLeo has argued that slots at the tracks—even dogless ones—will mean quick money, that’s not the case. As Attorney General Martha Coakley told a Senate committee in June, the state will have to overhaul its wiretapping and money laundering laws, and create a regulatory body to accommodate the one-armed bandits’ arrival. All of which could take a year.

There’s another issue, too: "Racinos," as the facilities are dubbed, aren’t actually good for, you know, the economy. Experts estimate that the most the state could expect to bring in for licensing a racino is $50 million. By contrast, a license for a high-end, Vegas-style resort casino (which Governor Deval Patrick favors) could run up to three or four times that. Moreover, racinos don’t create jobs: Building casino resorts requires lots of construction; installing slots at preexisting facilities requires little. Once open, racinos are good for three jobs per million dollars gambled, says Clyde Barrow, a UMass-Dartmouth professor and gaming expert. Resort casinos are good for 10. At resort facilities you need card dealers, bellhops, chefs—all manner of service employees. At racinos, you don’t even need anyone to make change, since the slots operate on debit cards.

But that’s not the worst of it. According to a new study of West Virginia racinos published by Ball State University, counties that installed slots at racetracks benefited from a one-time employment boost of 1.1 percent. Over the course of 26 years, however, the average salary in those same counties fell by up to almost 3 percent. In other words, racinos create low-paying jobs that depress other salaries in the area.