Editorial: Casino vote challenge: sticking to the facts

Last modified: Saturday, August 23, 2014
Fair warning, voters of Massachusetts: As campaigns for and against casino gambling ratchet up in advance of a November ballot question, prepare to be smothered with arguments.

The gambling industry spent millions to lobby lawmakers before the 2011 vote to allow three casinos and a slots parlor in the state. Certain players, notably MGM Resorts International in Springfield, have since invested many more millions in specific projects. The industry will do everything it can to defeat Question 3, which aims to overturn the casino law.

Meantime, volunteers behind the repeal effort, while they have a lot less money for advertising buys, vow to take their arguments against casino gambling directly to voters in a grassroots campaign.

As a story in the Gazette this week explained, both sides on the casino repeal question are now rolling out their arguments, ads and field campaigns. Both use their websites to offer up tsunamis of assertions.

Weighing contrasting claims about casino gambling is complicated. We hope Massachusetts voters find time in the next three months to consider the issue and not take these campaigns at face value.

In one corner, there is the Coalition to Protect Mass Jobs — the “no” side on Question 3. Early posts on its website note that a $225 million Plainville slots parlor already under construction by Penn National plans to start taking applications in September. Letting the law stand, it argues, will lead to creation of 10,000 “high quality” permanent jobs and 6,500 temporary jobs in construction.

It claims further that while jobs in retail pay an average salary of $26,000, sometimes without benefits, the average compensation in the gaming industry, with benefits, comes to $45,000. That’s an apples and oranges comparison if ever we saw one.

There’s a stark difference in those figures. And we question whether they are comparable. If benefits were calculated for the retail sector, would there be such a gap?

The anti-casino side, on its website, is promising to take a run at such claims. But as of Thursday, a page labeled “Casino Jobs” at repealthecasinodeal.org was still under construction.

When the possibility of casino gambling in Massachusetts surfaced a decade ago, an institute associated with the John F. Kennedy School of Economics at Harvard University published a paper that took a wide look at the pros and cons. The authors, Phineas Baxandall and Bruce Sacerdote, concluded that at the county level, “where any positive and negative effects are likely to be concentrated … casinos would have only relatively minor effects.” Jobs would be created, they said, but not enough, given population shifts, to significantly lower unemployment. Crime might rise, but mainly from an increase in population.

Policymakers, Baxandall and Sacerdote concluded in 2005, should consider how casino gambling might change a state’s character and should ponder the risks in using gaming tax receipts to pay for public services.

The premise of the referendum system is that the same citizens entrusted with electing lawmakers should also be able to directly guide public policy, particularly when a Legislature fails repeatedly to move a sound ideal forward. Such is the case with efforts to expand the bottle bill to include non-carbonated beverages. Lawmakers have failed for a decade to advance that proposal, but supporters gathered 19,000 signatures as of July and the question is also headed for a referendum vote Nov. 4.

Sometimes these questions push the state forward. In the case of casino gambling, Question 3 would void a law some citizens now find toxic.

The referendum is a vital tool in a democracy, but it’s a blunt one. This November’s questions will be decided in a mid-term election, meaning fewer people will participate. And while putting important decisions before voters is what a democracy is about, that process is only as good as people make it by carefully evaluating issues before them.

That’s never easy and it could be particularly hard for voters to take a fresh look at the wisdom of opening Massachusetts to casino gambling. It falls to conscientious voters to sift claims on both sides for facts needed to make an informed choice.