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Renée Loth

Beacon Hill surrenders to casinos

By Renée Loth
September 3, 2011

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THE MOOD at the State House is nothing short of jubilant at the prospect of casino gambling coming to Massachusetts at last. The new bill creating a path for three casinos and a slot-machine parlor blazed through the relevant committee 16 to 0 last week; all opponents could muster were a few token abstentions.

Last year’s political recriminations have melted away. Governor Deval Patrick, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Therese Murray are bowing graciously to each other like something out of the old comic “Alphonse and Gaston.’’ After you, Alphonse! The talk is all of 8,000 permanent jobs and billions of dollars in licensing fees and other investments. The State House News Service reports that the most notable aspect of the bill’s debut was “the utter lack of perceptible obstacles to passage.’’

And yet I can’t help but feel a little sad.

The capitulation to expanded gambling in Massachusetts represents a failure of imagination and will. After years of relentless attacks on broad-based taxes as the fairest way to fund public needs, even liberals are disheartened. Why not just accept the revenues from what former governor William Weld called “voluntary taxation’’ instead?

Here’s why. Gambling revenue - like user fees, naming rights, specialty license plates, and other forms of “voluntary’’ contributions to government - erodes a fundamental idea of democracy: that we’re all in this together. Instead of all people contributing equitably to the common good, a casino economy fractures the social compact. And it asks the most from those who can afford it least.

Let’s face it, gambling isn’t a favorite pastime of the rich. An effort back in the 1980s to establish a Massachusetts “arts lottery,’’ with a high-cost ticket dedicated to funding cultural programs, fizzled badly because the target audience wouldn’t take the bet. An anonymous wag put it best: Gambling is “a tax on people who are bad at math.’’

But it’s galling to see our entertainment dollars defecting to Connecticut and other states with casinos, supporters say. We need slot machines too, so we can recapture the money that is leaking out of Massachusetts - and fleece our own share of suckers from other states.

Beyond the beggar-thy-neighbor attitude this betrays, there’s still a good chance the gamblers losing their money in our new casinos will be mostly locals. At the vast new Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore, only people with a foreign passport are allowed in free; Singapore citizens are charged a hefty entrance levy. But I don’t think that policy will fly in Revere.

Jobs are good, but casinos don’t so much create jobs as replace them, cannibalizing other local businesses to benefit some corporate giant in Vegas or Malaysia. For every Foxwoods in isolated Ledyard, Conn., there is an Atlantic City, hollowed out except for the pawn shops.

And gambling addictions plague not just individuals; states can also get hooked on the revenues. Once they become dependent, states are vulnerable to increasing demands from their casino kingpins, whether it’s larger profits or looser regulations. Bet on it.

In my youth I spent many happy afternoons at the racetrack with my father, letting him place $2 wagers for me and learning the mysteries of the Racing Form. And if people want to risk the rent check on an ill-informed crapshoot, I suppose that is their choice. But it’s not something I’d want our schools to teach, and it isn’t something I think our government should so lustily promote, either.

It’s easy to be proud, even smug, about Massachusetts. We have some of the best-educated citizens in the country; progressive social policies; healthier lifestyles; an innovative economy; and culture, history, and natural beauty in abundance. The surrender to casinos signals the limits to our exceptionalism. Apparently, when it comes to the lure of easy money, we’re just like all the rest.

■Note: This is my last column for a bit. I’ll be off on a semester-long fellowship at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, examining efforts to teach “news literacy’’ at a time of radically blurred boundaries in the media. I’ll be back in these pages in January.

Renée Loth is a frequent contributor to the Globe opinion pages.