Cashed Out

If allowing suckers to drop the nest egg on slot machines is how Massachusetts will fix its money problem, let’s at least have some fun on the way to social ruin.

cashed out

Photo illustration by Miguel Navarro/The Image Foundation

Gambling is one of the most fun things you can do that doesn’t involve a Ukrainian lingerie model who thinks you’re a well-connected Hollywood agent. So you’d think that with the passage of the bill to authorize three casinos and a slot parlor in Massachusetts, good times would be ahead. You couldn’t be more wrong: However well intentioned, Beacon Hill is leading us down a path that will result in a bunch of crappy casinos that call to mind not so much James Bond as bingo hour at an old-age home.

The fact that the bill was negotiated behind closed doors by Governor Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Suffolk Downs) doesn’t help. Their plan, which Patrick is expected to sign into law by year’s end, splits the state into three territories and sets aside one casino for each, meaning at least two of these casinos are going to be in places nobody’s ever heard of and never wants to visit (Milford! Palmer! Glorious New Bedford!). That the legislature passed the bill, in fact, is more a testament to the current sense of fiscal calamity than to any kind of genius vision for the future.

[sidebar]When it comes to legalizing gambling in this state, one could argue that the motivation is a principled, live-free-or-die attitude of “Let each man do with his money as he sees fit.” But let’s get real. This is Massachusetts (slogan: “Keeping our noses blue since 1628”), not New Hampshire. Propose building a Walmart around here, and the usual suspects will line up to decry the destruction of local businesses, dismissing the benefit of thousands of new jobs because they’re low wage and part time. But filling a similarly cavernous and windowless building with blinking lights and jingling sounds, and outfitting those would-be Walmart greeters in polyester vests and clip-on bow ties, somehow manages to induce the precise sort of credulous stupor in politicians that it does in the chumps feeding their payday loans into the slot machines…and for the same reason: Look, free money.

In other words, cold, hard cash, as always, is the real inspiration for this bill. The fact is that Massachusetts, like pretty much every other state not named Texas, is running out of money to spend on good and necessary things: If the Red Line trains were automobiles they’d never pass inspection; construction of the Green Line extension has been delayed for almost as long as it took to actually complete the Big Dig; and the Northern Avenue bridge — gateway to the city’s glittering new Seaport District — is so rusted out that it belongs on cinderblocks next to a washer and dryer in front of Sarah Palin’s house. More important, though, the constricted budget also means there’s no money to spend on questionable ventures — which is the real reason people run for office in the first place.

Enter Bob DeLeo, a man whose three immediate predecessors as speaker were all convicted of felonies. We’re not suggesting that DeLeo is corrupt in any way — he’s just been particularly vociferous in pushing old-fashioned home-district pork-barreling. As a blatant sop to DeLeo, the bill includes a provision that would direct 9 percent of the slot parlor’s revenue not to fill potholes or reimburse first-grade teachers for their purchases of library paste and construction paper, but to boost purses at Massachusetts horse tracks. That’s right: The state is going to spend millions of coveted tax dollars on a horse-track stimulus project. The purported reason for that subsidy is protecting the jobs of the people who work at the tracks, which have become something of an endangered species thanks to a dwindling appetite for this kind of betting. The thinking goes like this: Give a cut of the casino take to the dying tracks, and they can keep paying the employees who are there to service the customers who are not there. I don’t have anything against horse racing, but every business circling the drain employs some number of decent, hard-working people who stand to lose their jobs, which is why every employer in the state pays a hefty chunk of payroll into something known in MBA jargon as “unemployment insurance.”