Wednesday, September 14, 2011

MA Casino Push: Perception vs. Reality

So on Beacon Hill, again the casino "debate" rages.  Breaking news from 2007? From 2010?  Today?  No matter - the "debate" is basically the same, which is to say that the low buzzing you hear emanating from Beacon Hill is not so much an open exchange of viewpoints as a frantic orgy of closed-door horse trading and deal making.  Tired shrug of resignation.

The way the politicians talk (and the way the press is covering the issue) one would be forgiven for thinking that what is going on is a pretty big deal.  Nobody pays much attention to the numbers.  Or more precisely, nobody pays much attention to how the numbers being tossed around relate to other relevant numbers that casino supports don't talk about.  The numbers that reflect reality.  Because reality-based numbers don't support the notion that casinos can or will make much of a difference at all to either unemployment or the budget mess in Massachusetts.

Here is House Speaker Bob DeLeo today (from the State House News Service):
The biggest thing on people's minds right now is employment and I don't know of any better place, or any other way, we can talk about creating a minimum of 15,000 jobs as we're doing with this legislation. That's what this legislation is all about.
15,000 jobs.  Sounds like a big number.  And then there's this (still DeLeo, still from SHNS): "I think actually when we talk about a $300 million possibility into the state coffers I think it's actually on the low side, but time will tell."

$300 million sounds like a really big number.  And it is.  But both 15,000 jobs and $300,000,000 in revenue shrink up quite a bit in significance when put into their proper contexts (and of course for the sake of argument here I'm accepting the casino lobby's projections - which are likely on the high to way-high side).

Take those 15,000 jobs.  The Speaker says he doesn't "know of any better place, or any other way, we can talk about creating a minimum of 15,000 jobs..."  Well, I hit the Google.  And guess what?  According to the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, Massachusetts "created" 12,700 jobs in July alone, even without casinos!  And 56,800 jobs - nearly four times the Speaker's 15,000 - over the past year. Even in this crap economy. Obviously I'm also accepting the Patrick Administration's job creation estimates, about which I've expressed a certain degree of, ahem, skepticism on more than one occasion in the past.  But the point is that it seems there is another way to create jobs in Massachusetts.  Like, I don't know, maybe putting all this oxygen-sucking casino baloney to rest once and for all and concentrating on easing regulations, stabilizing the tax code and fostering some real economic growth?

A few more things about that 15,000 estimate.  Again according to the EOLWD, there are currently 3,246,800 jobs in Massachusetts.  An additional 15,000 would add a whopping 0.46 percent to that total.  Less than half of one percent.

Now to that $300 million in estimated revenue.  Again, a big number.  But the Commonwealth's annual budget is roughly $30 billion.  An additional $300 million, while hardly chump change in anyone's estimation, would fund approximately one percent of the budget.  One. Percent.

See what I mean about those big numbers?  In exchange for an increase in jobs of less than one half of one percent and a "windfall" of revenue that might fund at best one percent of the Commonwealth's budget, the Speaker and his allies want to introduce an infamously corrupt (and corrupting) industry into an already politically corrupt state.  They want to fundamentally and irrevocably change the character of dozens of communities that will host and/or abut these gaming megaplexes.  They want to create a market sector that they know - they know - will foster addiction, alcoholism, personal and family financial ruin.

Why?  Well, the Speaker answered that today too (still SHNS):
This is a House that's concerned about jobs, and I think of all the issues that are going to be before the House that is the issue that is overriding with this membership, that they feel they have to do something for their constituents and the economy of the state, so I feel pretty good about it.
The one party cabal that runs Massachusetts long ago ran out of ideas to actually spur the kind of economic growth that would generate jobs and revenue numbers to dwarf those 'big numbers' the Speaker tossed out today.  But they "feel they have to do something," and putting up a bunch of flashy casinos will sure look like they are doing something

Is all of that worth it?  I don't think so.  But then I'm looking at the numbers.

UPDATE: This headline just came in (another from the SHNS): "House Rejects Cost-Benefit Analysis, Speeds Through Casino Bill Amendments."  Nothing to do but chuckle at that one.  Of course they did.  Who needs a silly old "cost-benefit analysis" when we've already got so many great big (small in context!) numbers, pulled directly from their-- never mind.

UPDATE #2 (Sept 15):  To nobody's surprise the casino bill sailed through the House last night, by a resounding vote of 123-32.  That's an even larger margin than the 108-46 vote by which essentially the same group of legislators a few years ago rejected expanded gaming in the Commonwealth.  A few things have changed since then, of course.  The economy has soured.  There has been some small amount of turnover in the House.  But the real difference - the only difference that matters - is that back then the Speaker was Sal DiMasi (D-Devens Federal Correctional), who was adamantly anti-casino, and now the Speaker is Bob DeLeo (D-Suffolk Downs), who is just as adamant on the pro side.

Reporters looking for an explanation for the mass flip can save their energy.  "Baaa!  Baaaa!" does not make for a very compelling interview.

And so now to the Senate...

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