In other news ….
If hard times and trying circumstances reveal character, then there is much to recommend Mayor Bloomberg in these days of fiscal peril. Faced with budget deficits and fiscal projections that have inspired memories of the city’s brush with bankruptcy in the 1970’s, the Mayor is resisting an easy, politically painless measure that many other embattled elected leaders have embraced: an extension of legalized gambling.
Lotteries, slot machines, blackjack tables, poker, roulette-these are the devices by which governors and mayors across the country have sought to delay or eliminate difficult decisions. The lure of these gimmicks is understandable: Why suffer the pain of a tax hike or spending cuts if you can identify wonderful new revenue streams, like yet another daily Lotto game or a casino tax? The proliferation of riverboat gambling on the Mississippi River, casinos on Indian reservations, video poker machines and lottery games suggest that decision-avoidance has become an epidemic among allegedly responsible local officials. According to the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, there are casinos in 28 states. Just a few years ago, they existed only in Nevada and New Jersey.
Politicians love gambling-or “gaming,” as the industry’s propagandists prefer to call it. They love gambling because the industry spreads around campaign contributions, and because it brings in tax dollars. If they’ve ever spent a fine day in the dark gambling factories of Atlantic City, where the desperate unwealthy dispose of money they can’t afford to lose, they have either repressed the pathetic scene from their memories or they are utterly devoid of conscience.
The latter explanation suggests itself. Officials in Albany are urging Mayor Bloomberg to gamble his way out of his financial problems. Instead of grimly insisting on renewing the city’s late, lamented and utterly just commuter tax, Mr. Bloomberg is being advised to follow the pain-free path to untapped riches. Forget tax increases, Albany is saying. Put video slot machines in the city’s Off Track Betting parlors and watch the money pour in! State officials say this delightful bit of decision-avoidance will add $400 million annually to the city’s coffers. By amazing coincidence, the old commuter tax used to raise about $400 million a year. See? Who needs taxes when you can free up the assets of working people by exploitation and manipulation?
Confronted with a similar temptation, officials in recent years have chosen vice over virtue time and again. To his credit, Mr. Bloomberg is resisting Albany’s siren call on both economic and moral grounds.
“During the campaign, the Mayor was asked about casinos, and he said he didn’t think it was good policy to fund government by using gambling money,” said William Cunningham, the Mayor’s communications director. “He said it’s regressive, because the people who can least afford to gamble tend to do it. And it’s just not a good symbol of what government is supposed to be about. The Mayor said that during the campaign, and this is a Mayor who lives up to his promises.”
Beyond principle, however, there’s the issue of cash money. The Mayor doesn’t believe for a minute that video slot machines-and, by the way, they’re not slot machines at all; they’re video lottery terminals-will raise $400 million a year. “Up in Albany, they keep looking for the golden goose, the horn of plenty, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Mr. Cunningham said. “Somebody just attached the number of $400 million to this proposal. But nobody in his right mind believes that you can get $400 million from this universe of people who go to O.T.B. parlors. Nobody has said that there is an infinite and expanding supply of gambling money.”
The gambling industry might be inclined to make such an assertion, and certainly politicians around the country choose to believe that such pots of gold exist. Even if they did, however, Mr. Cunningham says the Mayor would be opposed to further legitimizing a vice that hurts poor people far worse than it does the wealthy.
“The Mayor thinks that gambling is not the way you fund Children’s Services, or police officers on the beat, or Health and Hospitals,” Mr. Cunningham said. “It’s a very classic approach: You pay as you go. If you want services, you have to pay for them. With gambling, you’re allowing somebody else to bear the pain.”
To which, unfortunately, a generation of decision-makers might reply: Yeah, and you’re saying there’s something wrong with that?
Michael Bloomberg clearly thinks so, and is acting accordingly. His would have been an easy position to hold in, say, 1998. But it is 2003, and red ink is flowing and hard decisions need to be made. Mr. Bloomberg is making them; others search the horizon in search of gimmicks.
If nothing else, hard times tell us who the real leaders are.