Gambling on Schools, Rolling Snake Eyes

Next week many voters will breathe a sigh of relief. The political ads that have saturated the airwaves, driving us all insane, will thankfully come to an end. Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, you have my sympathy. Maryland is solidly blue – far from a battleground state – but an epic battle is brewing over a question on the statewide ballot, sparking a $60 million ad war over casino gambling.

The ballot measure, known as Question 7, would bring Las Vegas to the Potomac, authorizing a full-scale casino in Prince George’s County, a suburb of Washington, D.C. The referendum would also expand the state’s existing slot-machine gambling and endorse Vegas-style table games like blackjack at slots sites.

The avalanche of advertising on Question 7 from dueling sides is about as clear as mud, and a recent poll shows Maryland voters are evenly split. Vote yes, and supporters say we can count on a windfall of $199 million a year for Maryland schools, 12,000 great jobs. No on 7 says not so fast: there’s a huge loophole in the promise of increased education funding and the jobs claims don’t add up.

I’m not an economist, so I’ll leave the jobs question for others to parse. My biggest frustration lies elsewhere. Put simply, I’ve had it up to here with politicians who gloss over the fact that gambling to raise school revenue is a lousy idea.

We’ve been down this yellow brick road before. In 2008, Maryland voters authorized slots to support public education. Advocates said slots revenue would rain down and overflow state coffers. Sounds dreamy, right?

Four years later, pull back the curtain and what do you find: according to the Washington Post, revenue from gambling is used to supplant current education funding, not add to it. The state has used the equivalent amount of tax revenue for other things and kept education funding level. As the Post concluded, “…as of now, if Question 7 passes, the total level of spending on education is not expected to rise above where it would be otherwise.” More like rolling snake eyes than lucky 7s.

With this track record it’s no surprise that Maryland voters are skeptical of advertised claims that Question 7 will bring in new education dollars. Yet the funding sleight of hand is only one part of the deceit. State lawmakers lick their lips at the supposedly free money from casino gambling, but where exactly does this gambling booty come from?

Research is clear: A 2004 Harvard Medical School study found “African Americans have a higher rate of compulsive gambling than whites” and a 2009 Florida study shows black women are more gambling prone than men. Of course, what doesn’t show up in statistics is the hardships children endure when their parents gamble compulsively.

Preaching the moral turpitude of gambling is not my calling. This isn’t about sin; it’s about siphoning money for our public schools from those who can least afford it. I personally think Maryland set the bar too low. Why bother with casinos? Put slots and table games directly in the schools. Lose the middleman, generate a pot of gold for education, and encourage parents to come to school more often.

Ludicrous you say? Yes. But no more so than Maryland’s casino-gambling ballot measure. Revenue through gambling is terrible public policy – a stealthy way to fund schools disproportionately from lower-income residents. Public schools are a public good. And the public – taxpayers – need to properly fund education at state and local levels without relying on people’s addictions and compulsions. In the end, all taxpayers pay for those costs.