In an earlier era, there was just one Sin City. In today’s America, there are dozens, and the number is climbing ever higher. In the wake of the Great Recession, at least 10 more states have entered the gambling game, enacting new gaming laws in hopes of generating much-needed revenue. The recent flurry underscores the seismic shift in the U.S. gambling landscape over the past quarter-century. All told, if a guy is feeling lucky, he can now hit the blackjack tables or slots in 22 states, at 566 different casinos, plus another 460 on Indian reservations, according to a new report from the American Gaming Association.
And these numbers are continuing to grow: Ohio and Massachusetts are among the states that will host casinos for the first time before the end of this year, and other states are considering similar moves as they look for ways to replenish their depleted coffers.
The question is, does it work?
The Growth of Gambling
In 1978, Atlantic City opened its first casino, becoming the second gambling market, after Nevada, in the U.S. and setting a precedent for redevelopment of downtrodden areas. Since then, new laws have usually emerged in bursts that coincide with troubled economic times.
“During recessions or periods of fiscal crisis, there tends to be a lot more legislative interest [in gambling],” says Bill Eadington, an economist and director of the University of Nevada-Reno’s Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming. “In economically hard times, the fiscal argument carries considerably more weight [than the moral one].” States can become even more motivated when they see their own residents spending loads of money at casinos just across the border in a nearby state, or in Canada – money they could be keeping for themselves.
Creative lawmaking and enforcement subsequently bred riverboat casinos, racetrack casinos (“racinos”), and resort casinos (which must be attached to hotels and other activities, like golf courses). Indian reservations came out in full force in 1988. Many states now allow standalone casinos, and gambling has grown into a $37 billion business as of 2010, up from $22 billion in 1999. Including food and other non-gaming spending, casinos are a $50 billion a year industry.
Gambling, excluding lotteries, generated almost $7.6 billion in tax revenues for states and localities in 2010, according to a report published last year by the American Gaming Association. Proponents argue that the total economic impact is far greater, with hundreds of thousands of jobs generated, and an economic ripple effect for nearby communities.
Pennsylvania stands out as a particular success in the new wave of gambling operations. With a tax rate of 55 percent on all slot revenues and 16 percent on table games, in addition to what casinos pay in standard corporate taxes, the state now brings in more revenues from gambling than even mighty Nevada, at $1.3 billion to the Silver State’s $835 million in 2010.
Another winner is the Biloxi, Miss. area, with a gambling industry made up of casinos that are now among the largest employers and taxpayers in the state. Other states that have created a sizable revenue stream from gambling include Rhode Island, West Virginia, South Dakota and Indiana, all of which bring in at least 5 percent of all revenues via gambling.
State gambling revenues are most often allocated to education programs, a move that “makes gambling a lot more politically palatable,” says Eadington. In Pennsylvania, for example, according to a spokesperson at the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, 34 percent of gambling tax revenue goes toward education. In New York, that number is 100 percent.
Education earmarks don’t always stick, though, once the gambling industry is firmly in place in a state, says Eadington. In Pennsylvania – where gambling tax revenues are used, in part, for property tax relief – the promised benefits haven’t fully materialized. Last year, Pennsylvania residents, on average, received a roughly $200 rebate on their property taxes thanks to the revenue collected from the gaming industry. Even so, the rebates in many cases have been much smaller than originally promised back in 2004 when the state debated the introduction of legalized gambling – and property taxes continued to rise.