Call me fearless.
I’m finally ready to enter that burning debate that has consumed post-Katrina America: Under what conditions should the thirteen Mississippi casinos wiped out by the storm be allowed to rebuild?
And you thought I’d never speak out!
First, some background. Mississippi casino gambling was legalized in the early 90’s And to keep operations limited, it was restricted to casinos that could float; and those could be only along the Gulf Coast or along the Big Muddy.
Now, some of the biggest gambling corporations are demanding that when they rebuild they be allowed to do so on dry land. And some pro-gambling lobbyists want a new law that would put a ten year freeze on any hike in the gambling tax – currently set at 12% (Nevada casinos pay about 8%).
Governor Haley Barbour, a certified GOP hack and former RNC Chairman, has been on all sides of these issues . And the pro-gambling forces are led by, well, Democrats. It’s not clear how these matters will ultimately be resolved. But it’s an almost certainty that the state will grant new concessions to the casinos -- yummy incentives far beyond the imagination of the poor sucker civilians who got their houses blown away.
Mississippi casinos contribute about $190 million or just short of 5% to the state budget—a whole lot of money. The Gulf Coast casinos provide about 14,000 jobs – most of them low paying and non-union.
These are the “benefits” derived from legalized gambling. These are the reasons why the pols will do what they can to appease the gambling interests.
What’s never toted up in these calculations are the hidden and not so hidden costs of casino gambling. What are the social costs in social services, broken families, criminal justice etc. that are incurred as a result of compulsive and problem gamblers? A lot more, by the way, then one might imagine.
Further, how much local revenue is “cannibalized” by the casinos? In other words, how many local businesses, restaurants, theaters and bowling alleys have closed because so much discretionary income has been redirected into the slot machines and gaming tables?
So whether or not the casinos are on barges or 2,000 feet inland really makes no difference and should not be at the heart of the debate.
Instead, a serious economic study of the impact of gambling is in order. As desperate as Mississippi might be to reopen the casinos, it’s not like the gambling corporations can relocate to wherever they please. The state holds a strong negotiating hand -- if it cares to really play.
Any new concessions to the casinos should be balanced with substantial corporate givebacks: increased gambling taxes; living wage guarantees for casino workers; community development projects financed by gambling profits.
Don’t count on any of this happening. You're more likely to flop a Royal Flush than to see Mississippi get tough with the gambling industry. Sprouting casinos are always the markers of failed political leadership. They signal a surrender – a lack of any will or imagination to promote economic development other than through a regressive local tax (the bottom line of legalized gambling). At best, a strip of casinos is an ugly necessary evil. Any chance offered to renegotiate the deal between their owners and the surrounding communities should always favor the latter.