PROVIDENCE, RI – Rhode Island voters have twice turned down the chance to bring Las Vegas style casinos in the Ocean State. Things will probably be different this year.
Rhode Island once had a vigorous anti-casino movement whose members lobbied at the State House and campaigned across the state. Our state once had an anti-casino governor, Republican Lincoln Almond, who considered state promotion of gambling little more than a cheap tax on the poor. The state's media, led by the Providence Journal, once editorialized against the expansion of gambling.
Voters agreed with the anti-casino sentiment. In 1994, by a narrow margin, and in 2006, by an overwhelming vote, Rhode Islanders rejected casino proposals in statewide referenda.
Times have changed. Almond was replaced by another Republican governor, Donald Carcieri, who presided over the addition of thousands of video slot machines in Newport and Lincoln in the largest expansion of gambling in the state's history. Connecticut's Indian tribe gambling casinos flourished and expanded, drawing thousands of Rhode Islanders risking their money on slot machines and table games.
Then Massachusetts decided to get into this business. As early as next year, Massachusetts is slated to hand out licenses for three large destination-style casinos, one of them designated for a mere dice toss away from Rhode Island's border in southeastern Massachusetts. First dibs on this location are held by the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribe for a site in Taunton, a few miles down Route 44 from the Rhode Island line.
And the Bay State will also be deciding where to place a sprawling slot machine emporium. A major contender for slots is the foundering race track at Plainridge in Plainville, which is a short ride from Rhode Island's Lincoln slot parlor at Twin River.
Now, gambling tax money from the slots at Lincoln and Newport represent the third largest source of revenue to support state government and local school aid, after sales and income taxes. And hundreds of citizens earn their living separating gamblers from their money at the Newport Grand and especially at Twin River, the slot-machine and second-hand smoke palace.
With Massachusetts about to join Connecticut in building fancy casinos, Rhode Island politicians are eager to protect the $300 million in annual taxes harvested at Lincoln and Newport from P.T. Barnum's observation that a sucker is born every minute.
So in November our state's voters will face a ballot item that would allow full-fledged casinos at the slot parlors. And voters in Newport and Lincoln will consider local votes to allow this new gambling expansion.
The political landscape has shifted for many reasons. The casino industry's relentless pr and advertising campaigns have morphed gambling from a sleazy enterprise perpetuated by mobbed-up bookies into an upscale entertainment enjoyed by the ``wonder of it all'' Hollywood-looking couples in the Foxwoods television commercials. In this fantasy world nobody loses their home or marriage to gambling addiction; everybody wins at the roulette tables and dances the night away to the Four Tops Farewell tour.
State government has become addicted to the money generated by gamblers and the social downside be damned. In a society where voters want top government services but don't want to pay for them, gambling money allows politicians to hand out more government goodies without raising broad-based taxes.
And the anti-casino movement in our state has faded into the background, except for a hardy band of Newport citizens organized by the Rev. Eugene McKenna, a retired Roman Catholic priest, as Citizens Concerned About Casino Gambling. While the battle against casinos is over in most of Rhode Island, in Newport the anti-casino group fights on.
McKenna doesn't mince words. State-sponsored casino gambling makes the government a ``predator on its own people.'' And he and his group question why Newport needs table games, blackjack and roulette wheels to attract tourists to one of America's most storied seaport destinations, a city marinated in history, Gilded Age mansions, tennis, sailing, shopping, golf and fine restaurants.
While the prospects are dim for anti-casino forces in Lincoln, the Newport election may be different. Don't go looking for direction from the city's most powerful Smith Hill political leader, state Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport. The debate over table games at Newport Grand has spooked Paiva Weed so much that she won't even say how she is going to vote in her home city's election.
Newport voters have turned back casino proposals since the 1980s. Will they do so again?
Scott MacKay's commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at the `On Politics' web site at RIPR.org
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