Don’t roll the dice on casinos

Published 10:36 pm Thursday, January 9, 2014

Last week, at the Isle of Wight-Windsor Chamber of Commerce’s annual pre-session legislative breakfast, our local state lawmakers discussed their aims in Richmond over the next couple of months.

Delegate Rick Morris and senators John Cosgrove and Louise Lucas all took the plunge, but Lucas — whose district takes in part of Suffolk — made the biggest splash in terms of pounding a single issue.

Lucas insisted that legalizing casino gambling in Virginia would solve our problem of funding transportation projects, and leave enough loose change to fix some other things, too, like cash-starved school systems and public universities.

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Despite failing previously, Lucas has introduced a bill for consideration by the 2014 General Assembly that would bring Vegas-style gaming to the Old Dominion, negating the need to drive to Maryland, West Virginia or other nearby states that have already rolled the dice.

She would create a Virginia Casino Gaming Commission as a licensing body for casino gaming, and penalize violators of the casino gaming law.

Winnings would be divided thus: 10 percent to the locality, 90 percent to a fund to mitigate tolls and support construction (and afterward pay for maintenance) of the expansion of the Downtown and Midtown tunnels and Martin Luther King Freeway, plus the Dominion Boulevard Bridge and Roadway Improvement Project in Chesapeake.

Casinos would only be allowed in localities where at least 40 percent of land is exempt from real estate tax, which rules out Suffolk but allows in Portsmouth, where much of the city’s land is exempt from taxation because of state or federal government ownership.

Casino gambling is a popular pastime, and it probably would be a lucrative new revenue stream for Virginia and beat down tolls and fund transportation and other projects and causes over many years.

It might also support local businesses — hotels, restaurants and such — with casinos drawing out-of-town visitors, and it would probably employ some local people. Many folks like visiting casinos, and Virginians wouldn’t have to travel elsewhere to enjoy them.

But the benefits would pretty much end there, and the significant pitfalls kick in.

Because gambling addiction hits hardest among the uneducated, the poor, and the lower middle class, they’d be the ones funding our roads and whatever else. The comparatively affluent and better educated among us — less seduced by the bright lights and promised riches of slot machines — wouldn’t pay an extra cent. How does that gel with the tenets of Lucas’ political party?

Local government, along with churches and other nonprofits, would be left to pick up the pieces of families shattered by gambling addiction. Suffolk citizens would have only a short drive to the slot machines in Portsmouth, while our city would get none of the local revenue to deal with the social problems they bring home.

The casino cash spigot — gaming would bring the region annual tax revenue of $113 million, the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization has concluded — would also open the door to more government waste and corruption, at both state and local levels.

Around the world, many governments would love to break their addiction to slot machines because of the social decay. But they can’t — they’ve opened a door that can’t be shut again.