SOME SCENES from the casino wars:
Governor Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky wants his reelection battle with Democratic challenger Steve Beshear to turn on the issue of casino gambling. Fletcher opposes any expansion of legal gambling in Kentucky beyond the state's famous racetracks. Beshear favors amending the state constitution to legalize casinos. Last week, the governor embarked on a "No Casinos Tour" and began airing commercials warning that casino gambling will mean more crime, bankruptcy, and broken marriages. His opponent points out that casinos will generate $500 million a year in new state revenue.
In Florida, Governor Charlie Crist is hashing out a gaming agreement with the Seminole Indians, who operate seven casinos statewide. Those casinos have been limited to Class II slot machines, which are essentially glorified bingo games. But with lucrative Class III gaming -- Las Vegas-style slots and table games -- now lawful in Broward County, federal law entitles the Indians to offer high-end gaming as well, while allowing the state to negotiate a revenue-sharing deal. Crist is counting on casino money to plug the state's budget gap, but Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio calls expanded gambling "morally indefensible." Slot machines are "sinister," he says. "They literally nickel-and-dime the least among us down to their last dollar."
The casino skirmishing in Massachusetts these days is especially convoluted. The town of Middleborough has invited the Mashpee Wampanoags to develop a casino complex in exchange for infrastructure improvements and annual payments of about $11 million. State Treasurer Tim Cahill calls that a lousy deal and wants the state to auction off casino licenses to private developers instead. A University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth study says casinos in East Boston, Springfield, and New Bedford would yield $400 million in annual tax revenues and 10,000 new jobs. Gambling foes from the Catholic Church to the League of Women Voters warn of the dire results casinos will lead to. And everyone is waiting to see whether Governor Deval Patrick comes out for or against legalizing casinos.
Then there is Kansas, where the attorney general wants the state supreme court to decide if a new casino gambling law is constitutional. And Michigan, where legislators are fighting over letting racetracks add casino-style gambling. And Ohio, where Governor Ted Strickland has ordered hundreds of bars, clubs, and game parlors to shut down their electronic gambling machines or face criminal prosecution.
So it goes, year after year, in state after state: Entrepreneurs and investors who ought to have the same freedom to operate a casino as they would to open a shoe store or start a newspaper are forced instead to run an exhausting and expensive political gauntlet, often with no guarantee that casino gambling will even be permitted, let alone that they'll win a license to build one. How many other peaceful businesses offering a popular form of entertainment face such formidable legal and political barriers to entry?
Why do state governments treat casinos and their would-be owners this way? It can't be from any inherent objections to gambling -- 42 states have government-run lotteries, with annual revenues of more than $50 billion. It can't be because gambling is intrinsically immoral. Countless churches and religious organizations raise funds through bingo, lotteries, and Las Vegas nights. And it certainly can't be said that gambling flouts our national tradition. The Continental Congress established a national lottery to help finance the Revolutionary War. Riverboat gambling thrived on Mark Twain's Mississippi. Saloon gambling was a mainstay of the California Gold Rush. Gambling is as American as bourbon and Betsy Ross.
There is no good reason why entry into the casino business should be so severely restricted. It is true, as Kentucky's governor and many others point out, that gambling has social costs. Though it's harmless fun for most people, some gamblers become addicted. Compulsive gambling can ruin lives and wreck families.
But alcohol addiction devastates even more lives than gambling, yet who thinks we should return to Prohibition or make it all but impossible to open a bar or a liquor store? Automobile accidents kill 40,000 Americans every year, and severely injure tens of thousands more. The social costs of cars are steep, but no one wants lawmakers to criminalize auto dealerships or decide which cities can have one. The harm caused by graphic, violent, or propagandistic films may be great, but that isn't an argument for state-controlled studios.
The struggles of compulsive gamblers should not be minimized, but neither should they be used to justify authoritarianism. Gambling and casinos are not for everyone. But the American way is to err on the side of freedom.