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From `No Casinos” to `Yo Casinos’ in Rhode Island

March 16, 2012

Rhode Island was once one of the nation’s most anti-casino states. But, as Rhode Island Public Radio political analyst Scott Mackay finds that the profusion of casinos in New England has Rhode Islanders changing their tune.

Since the early 1990s, Rhode Islanders have debated allowing Las Vegas-style casinos in our state. The answer has been a resounding NO each time a casino proposal has been put to voters.

Now, the no casino state looks like it is about to become the go casino state. The slot machine emporiums at Twin River in Lincoln and at Newport Grand are panting after the right to introduce table games and turn both venues into full-fledged casinos. Their State House enablers appear poised to give them what they want.

This comes as no surprise: with Massachusetts about to join Connecticut in building casinos, Rhode Island lawmakers are desperate to protect our state’s $300 million in annual taxes harvested from P.T. Barnum’s dictum that a sucker is born every minute.

Henry David Thoreau famously wrote in the 19th century that most men live lives of quiet desperation, even though he never went to Twin River. Were Thoreau alive today, a visit to the Lincoln slot parlor would likely persuade him to amend his observation: people tossing their money into slot machines live in noisy desperation, accompanied by flashing lights, enveloped in stale cigarette smoke.

In the 21st century southern New England gambling scenario, Rhode Island is about to end up the loser as states race to the bottom in a desperate chase for gambling money. Connecticut has two huge gambling casinos in Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun and Massachusetts is on the verge of building three new ones.

The difference is that Massachusetts is planning so-called resort casinos, replete with glitzy hotels, upscale retailing and golf courses. Rhode Island’s venues have no such amenities.

When the Bay State builds casinos with shopping malls and fancy restaurants, our state will be stuck with cheesy 7-11 and fast-food style gambling. Where do you think the gambling masses are headed?

Rhode Island once had a strong anti-casino lobby and a staunch anti-casino governor, Republican Lincoln Almond. But the opposition has withered away, with the exception of the Rev. Eugene McKenna and his group, Citizens Concerned About Casino Gambling.

McKenna, a retired Roman Catholic priest, wonders why Newport needs to add table games to the slot machines at Newport Grand. Does Newport, a storied seaport steeped in American history, featuring  Gilded Age mansions and fine restaurants, really need blackjack to attract tourists?

McKenna says that state-sponsored casinos make the government a “predator on its own people.’’ Gambling is false economic development; all it does is shift money around without creating anything of value. And casinos will only create more problem gamblers who wreak havoc on recession-stressed families. Casinos provide jobs, but at what cost?

Unfortunately, the battle over casinos appears lost in Rhode Island. In this state that has never approved a casino referendum, it looks like public opinion has changed. A recent poll by WPRI-Channel 12 television shows that 55 percent of our state’s voters favor casino gambling with 39 percent opposed and 6 percent undecided. (The poll carries an error margin of about 5 percent).

Governor Almond predicted years ago that this would happen. “Once you go down the casino path, there is no turning back,’’ he said in the 1990s.

The argument used by the politicians nowadays is that if people are going to toss their money away gambling, they may as well do it in our state. But at some point, this market becomes saturated; there are only so any suckers. Foxwoods, the iconic Connecticut casino, is already in financial trouble, staggering under $2.3 billion in debt.

What our lawmakers ought to be preparing for is when the day of reckoning comes, casinos cannibalize each other and gambling revenue proves as illusory as the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. trudy permalink
    March 17, 2012 9:05 am

    Just when Foxwoods and other casinos are bellying up financially, yeah this sounds like a good idea.

    However, what the present plan has going for it is that in expanding existing locations it won’t destroy other neighborhoods or beautiful natural areas, as the Narragansetts’ plans would. Twin River and Newport Grand can go bankrupt in situ.

  2. ChuckA permalink
    March 19, 2012 11:54 pm

    On the WPRI-Channel 12 television poll, did you mean to write “39% OPPOSED”? Count me as one of them.

    • scott mackay permalink
      March 21, 2012 2:30 pm

      yes chuck. Thanks

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