Friday, November 1, 2013

Saying No to Casinos

Scripture for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost includes Joel 2:23-32; II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

I hear I missed three fine stewardship sermons, last Sunday. That’s what happens when you miss a Sunday here—you miss a lot!

My sermon today is about stewardship of a different kind. I want to talk to you about casino gambling, specifically about a citizens’ initiative petition to repeal the casino deal struck by our legislature and our Governor, a deal that the great majority of Massachusetts voters have not been allowed to vote on.

It is the purpose of the petition to provide that opportunity by a referendum article on our state ballot in November of next year, 2014. To achieve that, 69,000 bona fide signatures need to be gathered and verified, by mid-November of this year.

You may have noticed on your way in, this morning, that our vestibule has been rearranged to provide a place for you to sign this petition, if you are of a mind to do so. I’ll offer some coaching on signing that petition, before we’re done today.

First, a word about motivation. And then a word about our freedom to hold diverse opinions within the Body of Christ.

Motvation. Left to my own devices, I might not have risen to the challenge of tackling this harvesting of signatures here. Even though I was deeply disappointed by the eagerness of our Governor and the compliance of our legislature in sealing the casino deal, I might have been satisfied that the process of situating three regional casinos in the Commonwealth requires each host community to vote up or down the specific proposal for their community.

Or, to put that in Gospel terms today, I might have been quite willing to play the part of the Pharisee, stand by myself here in the Berkshires, and pray thus, “God, I thank you that we are not like the people of Springfield: desperate for jobs, yearning for urban renewal, eager to see good times roll by increased public revenues.”

That attitude, which could have been mine, would not have been worthy of anyone who believes in the concept of a commonwealth. That attitude, isolationist and short-sighted, was not going to go unchallenged by our activist Bishop of Western MA, whose see city, Springfield, is to be one of those three host communities. But over his dead body.

And not Doug Fisher alone. Far from it. In fact, the real firebrand at Diocesan House, on this issue, is our Chief Financial Officer, Steve Abdow. You’ll see that he is one of the ten first signers and sponsors of the petition. They are part of a diverse coalition of public health, municipal, family, and religious leaders who, along with concerned citizens from all walks of life, believe that predatory gambling destroys families, communities, and cultures. There, in a nutshell, is motivation.

And you now know that we are summoned by our Bishop to think not just our own thoughts but to consider what is known about a complex subject. You may not need persuading on this subject. You may hear what I have to say this morning and not be of a mind to sign this petition. Differing opinions and viewpoints are essential to the exercise of democracy. And, of all places, we who live in the Commonwealth of MA should k now (from our own tortured colonial history) that our deepest and truest wealth resides in freedom. Having clergy tell parishioners how to vote ought to be especially unacceptable in this Commonwealth. And that will be worth remembering if the coalition is successful in getting onto the ballot next year a repeal of the casino deal. Then, moral debate will doubtless reveal our diversity, and we will respect that diversity. For now, the question is simpler: Is casino gambling in three regions of Massachusetts a statewide issue that all voters should have the chance to decide?

If you say, as I do, that the answer to that question is Yes, then let’s sign the petition and call it a day.

But that would mean missing a golden opportunity to start considering what casino gambling represents. Carlo Rotella, a faculty member at Boston College, wrote an op ed piece that the Eagle picked up from The Globe. “I will sign the petition… because I’m convinced that casinos are bad for just about any community. It’s in my narrow self-interest to try to stop them even if nobody’s trying to build one in my town—if they’re bad for the state, they’re bad for my family.”

And, for most of our history, illegal. From 1930 to the late 1980s, they were legal only in Nevada and Atlantic City; but starting in the 90;s, they began entering the mainstream of American society, with the full support and sponsorship of the very same state governments that had outlawed them. In the report “Why Casinos Matter”, prepared by the Institute for American Values, the authors report that “Table games catering to high rollers have largely given way to slot machines catering to middle and low rollers. Casino gambling as a once or twice a year vacation has largely given way to casino gambling as a once or twice a month or once or twice a week pattern of life,” as most patrons live within 70 miles of a casino.

This report advances 31 propositions about the casino industry. Five pertain to slot machines, and I want to read just their titles.

1. The new American casino is primarily a facility filled with modern slot machines.
2. A modern slot machine is a sophisticated computer, engineered to create fast, continuous, and repeat betting.
3. Modern slot machines are carefully designed to ensure that the longer you play, the more you lose (“mechanical pickpockets”, Fiorello La Guardia called them).
4. Modern slot machines are highly addictive.
5. Modern slot machines are engineered to make players lose track of time and money.

Which segues easily to a few more propositions:
That casinos depend on problem gamblers for their revenue base, estimates running from 38% to 55% of their take.

That problem gambling is more widespread than many casino industry leaders claim (they estimate 1%; more reputable estimates say 15-20% are in some stage of addiction). And problem gambling affects families and communities as well as individuals.

The industry views young people (21-35) as their future. In some ways, they’re primed for gambling: since childhood, they’ve tapped buttons and tracked images on screens, spent money with a swipe of a debit card, played video games, and lived on social media—a soft target for Internet gambling, the next frontier for legalized gambling.

We need to remember how gambling has become legalized: the other fellow in our Gospel today is the tax collector. Rather than turning to him for an answer to revenue shortfalls, state governments have opted for what some say is a quick and painless fix. But here are four more propositions to consider:

1. The benefits of casinos are short-term and easy to measure, while many of their costs are longer-term and harder to measure.
2. Casinos extract wealth from communities.
3. Casinos typically weaken nearby businesses.
4. Casinos typically hurt property values in host communities.
5. Because of these reasons, state revenues from casinos are a regressive form of taxation paid by residents who are least able to pay it.

Other effects are worth taking into account, especially rises in crime and government corruption. While we were on Martha’s Vineyard last week, a banner headline in The Globe reported that Caesars Entertainment, one of the biggest in the business, will be dropped from a casino venture at Suffolk Downs “due to grave doubts that the international gambling giant would pass its mandatory state background check.” Oops!

What’s stunning about this is that it comes less than three weeks (now two) before voters in East Boston and Revere decide the fate of the casino proposal in their area. Talk about putting the cart before the horse! These communities have been bellying up to the bar with Caesar’s for two years now—and now the bottom falls out.

Closer to home, Springfield’s City Council President has asked the chairman of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission for advice on how the city can replace MGM if that company fails the state’s background check. Who will match that $800 million project MGM has proposed?

Can anyone tell me: Whatever happened to due diligence up front?

What’s good about these embarrassing developments is that Massachusetts is growing a reputation as the toughest US jurisdiction in which to qualify for a gambling license. What would be better is if we have the courage to just say No, and find more honest ways to deal with our revenue shortfall and our statewide need for more jobs, good jobs. It won’t be just in the licensing process that we’ll need a tough and ready strong arm of the state to protect us: the public will need protection from the very business practices that will generate revenue for the state—and that is a conflict of interest that we’d be smart to avoid.

Enough, already. If you’re a registered voter in Massachusetts, I hope you’ll consider signing the petition. No surprise: there are tight rules to follow. I’ll mention three:

Sign on the clipboard that corresponds to the town you live in (if there’s no clipboard for
your town, we’ll start one
Sign legibly (note to self) in ink, using your name as you think it appears in your town’s
voting list (no need to fill in ward and precinct)
Use the address that matches, no post office boxes allowed

And say a simple prayer of thanksgiving for the freedoms we enjoy in this country, including this one, standing up for ourselves—and one another—against companies and politicians offering us a bad deal.

Carlo Rotella’s op ed piece “Saying No to Casinos” appeared in the September 30, 2013 issue of The Berkshire Eagle.