Are Casinos Compatible With a Commonwealth?

By Richard Nelson

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February 10, 2021

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By Richard Nelson

Arguments of casino advocates won the day in the state Senate yesterday. They were told that redefining the term pari-mutuel to include video slot machines is necessary to save the horse industry and help all things thoroughbred related. Twenty-two members were convinced video slots are a new entertainment venue. They were promised a new tax revenue stream to the state—revenue that previously left Kentucky and had gone into surrounding states’ coffers. So much hype and hope. Yet so little consideration for the questions opponents raise.

State senator Whitney Westerfield urged his colleagues to vote against SB 120 and said, “Gaming in all its forms is predatory and bad public policy. It’s an industry that’s predicated on the losses of its patrons.” Westerfield argued that the Kentucky constitution does not allow video slot machine gambling even if proponents insist they be called something like historical horse racing (HHR). But that didn’t stop the state Senate yesterday from voting for it.

The bill is now in the State House which is fast-tracked for passage and the only thing that might delay this odds-on-favorite piece of legislation is the ice storm that might send the legislature home early. In either case, the bill will eventually come up for a vote in the House. But before our State Representatives vote, they ought to consider a few questions.

If gambling is truly an economic winner for the horse industry in the state why not offer licenses across the state to the highest bidder? Why not allow local governments to offer casino licenses for them to benefit from some of the revenue? Both proposals would allow the market and the democratic process to prevail and take away the argument that the state is creating a monopoly that benefits one industry.

Legislators are told that gambling expansion is an economic winner. But is it really? How about the hotels, and mom-and-pop local restaurants that aren’t permitted to have slots to attract patrons? What will happen to the local economy that will see discretionary dollars siphoned off to the casinos? What about the car dealer and appliance store, the bowling alley and retail clothing outlets that cannot lure patrons in with promises of quick cash and loads of fun accompanied by flashing lights, bells, whistles, and spinning wheels that mesmerize the players.

And who are those players? The lonely widow who’ll take her Social Security check to play the slots for a little action. It’s the blue-collar guy tempted to take his paycheck with the hope of bringing home more. But more often than not, the House gobbles up that paycheck leaving the poor guy with nothing and having to explain to his wife where the grocery money went. It’s the soldier, like the ones I lived close to at Fort Campbell, asked by his buddies to go to Oak Grove Gaming near Gate Four to give it a try. The same for the college student out on a Saturday night with her friends.

Real people that we all know will gamble. For some, it will be another form of entertainment. But for others, they will learn the hard way they have a latent addiction that will hurt them. This alone should cause our legislators to ask: is it good public policy to bail out an industry that will clearly ruin some people’s lives?

Can a business be considered just when it sends patrons out the door with empty pockets and having nothing to show for it other than a few fleeting moments of excitement? And can a society be considered good that welcomes such activity to openly exist? Does the casino mentality contribute to a better work ethic? Does it foster the idea of prudence in finances? Does it foster goodwill and love of neighbor?

We live in a commonwealth. This means that we share a common geography, common natural resources, the same freedoms, and economic opportunities to build wealth, better lives for ourselves, our families, and our communities. It’s a good idea. But if we insist on being called a commonwealth any longer, we ought to collectively protect it and keep out the things that chisel away its well-being.

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Director, Commonwealth Policy Center