I’ll admit it. I feel a bit hypocritical when I write about the problems with expanded gambling in Pennsylvania. Why? Because I freaking love to gamble.
I’ve played poker since I was 9 years old; I love the game. I play fantasy sports — baseball and football — and at one time I even played fantasy golf. Las Vegas is absolutely one of my most favorite places on this planet, and an annual trip there is something I look forward to.
However, I have a different feeling when it comes to expanded gambling in states like Pennsylvania. Places where casinos are located near residential neighborhoods. Places where the dreams of striking it rich can be played out 10 minutes from your house. Places where it’s too easy to spend your paycheck on the dream of big bucks. It’s become too easy to lose your money, and that’s what I have a problem with.
And now, facing a nearly $3 billion budget shortfall, our state legislators are about to make it even easier to lose your cash in the name of revenue generation. Expanded-gambling bills have already passed in the state house and the senate. The bills would allow you to play casino games like poker, blackjack and slots, lottery games and fantasy sports from the comfort of your home. Additionally, one version of the bill would allow bars and restaurants to install their own video-gambling terminals like slots and video poker, and would permit gambling at airports. If this gambling bill passes, you won’t have to make the onerous three-minute trip to the North Side to gamble. Christ, you won’t have to even put on pants in order to lose your shirt.
None of these gambling options are good, but the worst in my experience are the terminals in bars and restaurants. Increased access is the obvious problem, but in places like West Virginia, expanded gambling like this over the years hasn’t just resulted in a casino on every corner; it’s resulted in several on every block. I wrote about this issue in my very first City Paper cover story, in 2005. Slot machines were put into every business imaginable, from car washes to ice-cream shops.
During that time, I met a Weirton, W.Va., activist named Jody Kraina. She was fighting for reforms to the state’s gambling laws. She got nowhere fast. But she knew what she was talking about.
“Look at Pennsylvania,” says Kraina, spokesperson for Weirton-based RAGE (Residents Against Gambling Establishments). “They’re sitting where West Virginia sat years ago, allowing slots to help save racetracks. But they need to look very closely at where we are now. Once you allow those things in here, it’s ‘Katie bar the door.’”
It took 12 years, but her premonition came true. Also, I wonder whether Kraina even realized the heights that expanded and online gambling would reach in cash-strapped states. Gambling halls in Pennsylvania once seemed like they would never materialize, but in 2004 in-state gambling was approved. Also since then, a lot of legislators have changed their tunes on gambling. Even “Self-Righteous Mike” Turzai is coming around, and he was staunchly against the first round of gambling legalization. Maybe he’s had an honest change of heart — or maybe his former chief of staff Krystjan Callahan, who is now a lobbyist for the gambling industry, has. Do with that information what you will.
But the reality is, the state needs revenue from somewhere, and Republicans are against raising traditional taxes to take the burden off Pennsylvania’s hard-working families. Instead, they’re going to impose huge taxes on expanded gambling, and charge the suppliers of that service. Except they’re not.
Researchers at the University of Buffalo have done extensive research on the impact that gambling has on lower-income individuals. They began studying the issue when the Buffalo Creek Casino was being planned for construction in an area with high poverty rates. Among the findings: “Populations already facing high poverty rates and inequalities, such as African Americans, have higher rates of problem gambling.” A 1994 study of Wisconsin gamblers found that “53.7 percent of casino gamblers had an income below $30,000 per year, with 37 percent below $20,000 per year and 13.7 percent below $10,000 per year.”
So what does that mean? It means, in essence, that expanded gambling is a tax. It’s a tax on our poorest citizens. But this isn’t the kind of tax that is likely to keep Pennsylvania’s long-time legislators from getting re-elected. It’s not a larger sales tax or an income tax, so most people aren’t going to make this an issue come election time. Expanded gambling is a safe bet for our state legislators; they’re essentially playing with what is known in casino parlance as “house money.” It’s the rest of us who are going to crap out.