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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Casinos not a good bet for state, citizens

The first time I ever went to a thoroughbred track, I placed a $2 bet on a horse named Burrito and won $80.

“Wow!” I said. “This is so much fun.”

I was at Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, Ky., hanging out with friends. Most of us had never been to the track before, but we quickly learned how to place bets and developed strategies for doing so. My strategy entailed picking horses with names I liked. I was lucky that day, winning close to $150.
When you’re winning money, winning money seems easy.

I rarely go to the track, but whenever I do, I remember the horse named Burrito. Maybe, I always think, something like that will happen again. But you know what? It never has. I never win money at the track. I place my little bets — nothing larger than $5, generally — and try to enjoy myself without losing too much money.

So I’m not anti-gambling.

But I’m not pro-gambling, either.

Gambling comes with actual costs — costs that the Cuomo administration is asking New Yorkers to ignore.

A measure that would expand gambling throughout the state will appear on November’s ballot, which touts the alleged benefits of live-table gaming, saying it will generate jobs, increase aid to schools and lower property taxes.

The referendum’s upbeat wording makes a difference, according to the Siena Research Institute: Though voters are evenly split on whether to amend the constitution to allow gambling on non-Indian lands, support increases by 9 percent when they hear about all the fantastic things casinos will supposedly do. Apparently, when you promise a hungry populace desperate for nice things free ponies and pots of gold, they get excited.

However, there are actual costs to gambling — costs that no one from the Cuomo administration is bothering to mention.

For many, gambling is a highly addictive activity that brings only heartache and financial ruin: Research has shown that when there are more opportunities to gamble, people are more likely to develop gambling problems.

Research from the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions has shown that problem gambling becomes more common as socioeconomic status declines. In other words, people of limited means are more likely to waste their meager paychecks on some pie-in-the-sky fantasy of getting rich quick.

What bugs me is the effort the state is putting into selling this pie-in-the-sky fantasy to people.
If approved, the casino gaming amendment would allow the Legislature to authorize up to seven casinos. Four of these casinos would be located upstate, with the Capital Region, Catskills and Southern Tier each getting at least one. In addition, 2,000 new video lottery terminals would be installed at off-track betting facilities on Long Island.

By nature, I’m not a prohibitionist.

I don’t think gambling should be outlawed.

But don’t we already have plenty of opportunities to gamble?

There’s Saratoga Race Course, of course, as well as the Saratoga Casino and Raceway, which has more than 1,700 VLTs. The Off-Track Betting website for New York actually brags about how many OTB parlors the state has, noting that they are “too numerous to list individually” and proclaiming that New York leads the country in off-track betting options. If I wanted, I could swing by the OTB parlor on

Central Avenue on my way home from work and spend my entire paycheck. In addition, there are Indian casinos a short drive away. And lottery tickets are available everywhere.

In other states, casinos are struggling.

One reason for this, suggested Frank Mauro, an economist at the Latham-based Fiscal Policy Institute, is increased competition: New casinos draw business from existing casinos. Connecticut’s casinos recently reported their 19th straight month of declining slot revenues, a drop that’s partly due to the new racino at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens.

In Pennsylvania, casinos are also struggling. According to The Morning Call, the newspaper in Allentown, Pa., “After five years of posting annual revenue increases by stealing customers from New Jersey casinos, September was the tenth consecutive month in which state casinos saw a collective decline over the previous year.”

“States that got in early [on casinos] enjoyed some profits for a while, but those profits eroded as more and more states got into the game,” Mauro said.

My feeling is that if gambling is a key component of your economic plan, you don’t have an economic plan.

People love Las Vegas, but the city was harder-hit by the recession than the rest of the country, and its unemployment rate remains close to 10 percent. Then there’s Atlantic City, one of the most depressing places I’ve ever been. And I don’t remember thinking that the Indian casino in Philadelphia, Miss., was such a great place to visit when my friends and I stopped there on our way to Jackson to see KISS in concert.

It was fun, though, to watch my friend Cindy win $80 at blackjack. But she kept playing, of course, and by the end of the night, her winnings were gone.

Sara Foss is a Gazette columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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