The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

May 14, 2014

Is state betting its future on gambling?

JOHNSTOWN — It might be time for an intervention.

It’s beginning to look more and more like Pennsylvania has a gambling problem. Our legislators might not be addicted to the rush that comes with a big bet, but they certainly seem to have a taste for the influx of cash that legalized gambling can bring to the Keystone State.

Like many gambling addictions, it started simply enough. The Racehorse Development and Gaming Act, passed in 2004, cleared the way for racetrack casinos, slot parlors and casino resorts in Pennsylvania.

“It’s just a little (mostly) harmless fun playing slots or betting on the ponies,” gambling proponents said. “Everyone else is doing it. And just think of all of the property tax money that we can save!”

Six years and nine casinos later, our state leaders moved on to table games.

“Slots are fun,” they said, “but table games are where the real action is. We need this to keep pace with our neighboring states.”

Now, it’s 2014 and the legislators are starting to notice that the stack of chips that was supposed to be piling up in front of them is dwindling instead. The state is facing a $1 billion budget shortfall and its gambling revenue was down in 2013.

Not all of these bets are paying off. But, like a problem gambler, state leaders are not willing to cash in and head home.

“This is a sure thing,” some legislators seemed to be saying last week. “We’ve got a way to win our money back: We’ll allow online gaming!”

Econsult Solutions Inc. of Philadelphia found that online gambling in Pennsylvania could generate $307 million per year, according to a story by The Associated Press. And legislators across the state are already lining up to place their figurative bets.

What could be wrong with that? Well, plenty, actually. Consider:

n The payoff might not be as good as advertised. New Jersey had hoped to make $1 billion in its first year of online gambling, but recent estimates show it could only be one-fifth of that.

n Online gambling could just end up taking away players from the casinos. Econsult says that online gambling likely would attract younger gamblers, but admits that there are few studies that examine the relationship between online and offline gambling.

If neither of those are true, the best-case scenario is that we are exposing a new generation to a potentially addictive and destructive habit. Sitting alone in front of their computers or smartphones, they will be free to spend, spend, spend without so much as a pit boss or cocktail waitress to interrupt their binge.

Is that really a future that we should be striving to attain?

Our plea to legislators is this: Stop hitting the spin button, put the cards down and step away from the table. Pennsylvania can’t afford to continue gambling on gaming revenue.

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