The Exaggerated Promise of Legalized Gambling


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There’s a lot that can go wrong when a state turns to legalized gambling as a source of revenue.  This is a fact that Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and others should keep in mind during their continuing efforts to push for expanded gambling as a solution to their budget woes

For starters, a poor economy, opposition by local residents, legal challenges, and a number of other factors can delay the opening of newly legal gambling establishments.  And without functioning gambling venues, there’s no money for the state.  Recent stories out of Maryland and Pennsylvania demonstrate the very real nature of this threat.  Additionally, recent polling done in Illinois suggests that opposition to gambling at the local level – fueled in part, no doubt, by the Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) syndrome – could cause similar delays there.  And legal challenges in Ohio indicate that the Buckeye state could be in for delays in gambling implementation as well.

But even after a state manages to get its gambling operations up and running, the revenue stream produced by gambling may not be as lucrative as advertised.  A recent New York Times story details the degree to which gambling revenues (from casinos, racetracks, lotteries, etc) are disappointing states this year.  The most obvious culprit in this case is the slumping economy, though some experts believe that increasing competition for gamblers both between states, and within states – known as “market saturation” – may be at least partially to blame.  Worries about market saturation have been on full display in Ohio, where racetrack owners are on edge about the effect that casino legalization (to be voted on by Ohioans this November) could have in cutting into their profits.

In other cases, it may simply be the case that gambling just isn’t as popular as first expected.  The perceived need among many states to legalize slot machine gambling as a means of drawing gamblers back to struggling racetracks is evidence of this problem.  Unfortunately, the failure of this method in Indiana has drawn into question the wisdom of this revenue-raising strategy as well.

Other methods, such as loosening the restrictions on betting limits or alcohol sales (which were originally imposed to secure support for gambling from reluctant lawmakers) are being tried as well.

Ultimately, the fact is that gambling is far from a fiscal panacea for the states, and given the tendency for implementation delays, is exceedingly unlikely to result in much revenue to fix the current round of state budget shortfalls.  Take a look at this ITEP policy brief for more on the gambling issue.

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