The race is on

Columnist : Albert Paschall

I’ve never been much of a gambler. Once a year I might take the quarters that have backed up in my sock drawer, head to Atlantic City and pour them into a slot machine. I win a little; I lose it all and end up at the $12 buffet over looking the bay. I have never made a real bet but there is one you can put your bottom dollar on right now. Far surer than the stock market and safer than the savings at your bank: gambling is coming to Pennsylvania.

Our new governor is for it and he’s attracted considerable support around the state for some form of legalized gambling. The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research’s January survey of the state showed that 60% of state residents approve of casino-style gambling. The state’s take is too good to pass up when facing a deficit estimate of $400 million. The introduction of legalized gaming will bring in at least $100 million in new revenue for whatever good cause you’ve got in Pennsylvania.

What’s talked about most is putting slot machines at horse racing tracks. The press all over the state has coined the term ‘racinos’. That’s racetrack and casino. The state of Delaware has tried them for about 10 years and they are basically the dung heap of contemporary American gambling.

There’s a mythology of political cover that people throwing quarters into slot machines is the same as laying 2 bucks down on the ponies. In this strained logic slot machines around the tracks are just kind of an extension of the horse’s tail.

Except it’s the tail wagging the horse. The state’s horseracing tracks have been stampeding headlong into oblivion for the last 20 years and the notion that the state has to bale their hay out by limiting the gambling franchises to them is a bet that won’t really pay off for the state’s taxpayers. It ignores the best locations, diminishes potential tourism and leaves out big parts of the state. Ask people if they want to go to a racetrack and they hold their nose, ask them if they want to go to a casino and they jump on a bus.

If Pennsylvania bets on gambling to end its budget woes for the real jackpots to come in it has to be tied to areas that are attractive to tourists. Limit gaming to horseracing tracks and you’ll get day trippers with quarters from their sock drawers. Build a casino in the northeastern part of the state, not far from something like the popular Crossings Factory Outlet Center near Stroudsburg, and you won’t have enough room in all of the Poconos to park the buses that will fill hotel rooms all year long.

For the state’s taxpayers to really cash in on gaming all the state has to do is put 10 licenses on the market for slot machines, roulette, blackjack and poker with capped betting. Two locations each in the four corners of the state and, if they’ll have them, counties in central Pennsylvania. After the auction the highest bidders would have to win the public’s heart with countywide voter referendums to approve them. If county voters rejected gambling, the licenses would be auctioned off again. Before the first bets are placed, the state’s picked up at least $100 million in new revenue.

The race is on and we’ll soon know who controls gambling in the state. Governors and the general assembly have manipulated races for years – that’s what politicians do. If they manipulate this one right someday soon we’ll all win and there will be limited casino gambling at tourist attractions in Pennsylvania.

Albert Paschall
Senior Commentator
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.
[email protected]