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Adrian Walker

Playing the jobs chip

Just so we're all on the same page: Governor Deval Patrick's proposal for three casinos is, in fact, a jobs program.

It isn't a naked grab for more revenue to keep his long string of campaign proposals, nor is it simply a more-palatable alternative to jacking up taxes, which are soaring already. It's all about 20,000 permanent jobs, the governor insists.

Patrick came back from vacation to propose what almost everyone expected. The bridge from a state lottery to casinos was a short one to cross.

Patrick said Tuesday that his initial instincts were antigambling. "I think a lot of us say that we don't have moral misgivings about gambling, but I'm not sure we mean it," he said. "I was raised to think that gambling was seedy and inappropriate."

Clearly, he's changed his mind. Actually, he says casinos have changed, becoming part of a broader vacation experience.

But what of the social costs of gambling? One 1999 study by the University of Chicago found that blacks and poor people are more than twice as likely to become problem or pathological gamblers than their white or well-heeled counterparts.

Patrick said he believes that so-called resort casinos draw a more upscale clientele and that as a percentage of the whole, the number of compulsive gamblers is very small. For almost everyone, he said, it's harmless fun.

"When you're dealing with an individual, that's profound," Patrick said. "I'm not saying my ambition is to turn Massachusetts into Las Vegas. That's not who we are, and that's not where I want to go."

I know the governor is a man who likes to dive into the minutiae of policy. Still, I was never persuaded by the idea that he was spending August in the Berkshires deeply pondering where to come down on this.

The seeds of this notion go back to the campaign trail, where he agreed to support nearly every constituency's pet idea. That costs a lot, as his opponents pointed out. The bill is quickly coming due.

I find it tempting to oppose this, especially as a person who has never even bought a scratch ticket. (There's no moral reason for that; I guess I just don't feel particularly lucky.) But consistency would demand that I be opposed to the state lottery, too, and I'm not. This makes me queasy.

But I also believe that people who are determined to gamble have no trouble finding something to bet on. If we're serious about getting rid of gambling, we should disband the National Football League.

I do wish we would stop pretending this is a jobs program, or a rescue plan for the state's roads and bridges. In truth, turnpike tolls are all going to go up next year whether casinos pass or not, partly because the potential windfall, if any, is years away.

Three casinos to me, is one too many. Southeastern Massachusetts is a logical location for one, and so is Western Massachusetts, where the economy has lagged for decades. Boston is another story. Those areas are far better positioned to deal with the traffic and other ancillary headaches of casinos than, say, East Boston. Not to mention that Boston has a thriving tourism industry without casinos and therefore the least to gain from them. Casinos, like football stadiums, belong in less-populated areas.

Patrick is being pounded by some of his liberal supporters for embracing this. But there aren't many big pots of cash out there to tap, and lawmakers know it. They will vote for practically anything before they will support a major tax hike. This is a tough sell, but casinos are the path of least resistance. Never bet against that at the State House.

When we talked, Patrick alluded several times to the need to integrate the casinos into the culture of Massachusetts. That culture may be about to change. His premise is that three resort casinos can be absorbed without disruption. But gambling, as we all know, thrives on illusion.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

 COMPLETE COVERAGE: Gambling in Massachusetts
Opinion:
 RICHARD A. MCGOWAN: Ethics of gambling
 ADRIAN WALKER: Playing the jobs chip

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