So Twin River’s parent company wants to build a new casino in Tiverton. The idea is likely to raise a few eyebrows, but RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says it has to be done.
There are many Rhode Islanders who don’t believe that state government should be in the business of promoting gambling. Those critics point out the lottery games and slot-machine emporiums that speckle New England like daffodils these days are little more than cheap taxes on the poor.
State-sponsored gambling gives taxpayers the false impression that we can have good services without paying for them. This goes against the grain of Oliver Wendell Holmes famous dictum that taxes "are the price we pay for civilization.’’
Having the government urge citizens to gamble also runs up against the distinctly New England work ethic. It lulls citizens into thinking they can get rich by putting their money in slot machines or buying scratch tickets. It also preys on the weak who become addicted to gambling and the collateral damage of fractured families and lives destroyed by the over indulgence in a get-rich-quick attitude.
Then there is the New Reality of state-backed gambling, as expressed by Rhode Island’s House Speaker, Nick Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat. "Whether you like it or not, gambling is the third largest source of state revenue,’’ he says.
Now, our state’s more than $300 million annual gambling tax haul is threatened on several fronts. There are plans in Connecticut and Massachusetts to build even more new casinos near Rhode Island’s borders. And during last November’s election, Newport voters emphatically rejected, for the second time, installing table games at the Newport Grand slot parlor, a faded venue that has seen a decline in patrons willing to pony up to the video slot machines.
The sad reality is that even if we don’t like gambling, there is very little that Rhode Island can do to stop citizens from plopping their dollars into the slots or on a blackjack table. A state that you can drive across in 45 minutes without breaking the speed limit will never keep its citizens from spending their gambling money elsewhere.
That’s why the Twin River plan to shift gambling from Newport to a new facility in a rural section of Tiverton makes sense. It would help stanch the bleeding of gambling money to new venues in the works in Massachusetts. It would serve as a potent aspirin to the fiscal headache caused by Newport voters who turned thumbs down to making Newport Grand a full-fledged casino.
There will, of course, be the usual blush of Not-In-My-Backyard skepticism from a slice of Tiverton voters, who must approve any casino plan. But history informs us that Tiverton voters may not be as averse to legal gambling as their Newport neighbors. During the 2014 election, the planned expansion of gambling in Newport won by better than 65 percent in Tiverton. It remains to be seen whether Tiverton voters will feel the same when the proposed casino is located within their town borders. (In Rhode Island, a gambling expansion requires voter approval at both the municipal and state levels).
The other advantage of the 45-acre Tiverton site is that it is large enough to build amenities that the Newport location lacked, such as restaurants, conference centers and shopping facilities. The link with Lincoln’s Twin River would also encourage cross-promotion of the two Rhode Island gambling venues. The Four Tops Farewell Tour, say, could be promoted as appearing on Friday night in Lincoln and on Saturday in Tiverton. (As we all know, The Four Tops Farwell Tour never really ends).
Another plus is that the proposed Tiverton location is only an eight iron from the Massachusetts border, meaning the Bay State would have to put up with at least some of the impact on traffic or law-enforcement from a new casino.
Twin River’s parent company says this new casino would employ more than 200 workers. Hopefully some of the workers displaced by the closing of Newport Grand could find jobs at the new location.
At some point, Southern New England will become saturated with gambling emporiums. Rhode Island lawmakers should begin planning for that day by investing in programs that will bring better jobs than those separating gamblers from their money. This means spending public money on education, infrastructure and energy conservation initiatives.
But for now, the state relies on gambling for so much money to fix the roads, finance the schools and chase the crooks. It’s depressing, but it’s the reality, so the General Assembly ought to allow this project to move forward by putting it to voters in 2016.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at the `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org