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The Omaha, Nebraska, city council recently okayed $17.5 million in tax incentives for a new casino, part of a gambling expansion that voters approved via ballot referendum in 2020. As occurs so often with the current American boom in gambling legalization, the idea behind opening new casinos is ostensibly to provide an economic jolt.
“These are good paying jobs in the casinos and careers in the casinos from marketing to accounting to dealers to janitors,” said one supporter (who very much stands to benefit from legalization). “This is going to equate to $145,000,000 in new payroll for the state of Nebraska and Nebraska residents.”
There’s a problem though: The U.S. is awash in gambling options. Adding new ones isn’t going to do anything appreciable for a local economy.
Nearly every state in the U.S. allows gambling of some sort, and most of them allow casinos, whether owned by Native American tribes or other commercial owners. Where once there was scarcity — with Atlantic City and Las Vegas tourist destinations because they offered something nowhere else had — there is now overabundance. People don’t need to travel to gamble because, for nearly everyone, there is gambling available close to home.
Just look around the country: Late last year, Biloxi, Mississippi, approved tax incentives for a new casino. Kentucky is subsidizing new racetracks with gaming. And states across the country are legalizing sports gambling. In addition to Nebraska, Virginia and Colorado expanded casino gambling via ballot initiative in 2020.
There’s no shortage of opportunities, if wagering is your thing. But that constant growth means that any one new facility is less likely to be impactful on the local economy, because there’s probably another option not that far away.
In fact, as I wrote in my book, new gambling facilities are increasingly being opened not with the previous goal of attracting anyone new to the area to spend their dollars, but simply to prevent local dollars from crossing over state lines, spent by people willing to drive an hour or two to play a few hands of cards or, more likely, to sit at a slot machine, and then drive home.
Therefore new casinos aren’t competing with other casinos, really. They’re competing with other local entertainment options — and therefore not creating anything new for the economy, just shuffling already existing dollars around, and maybe protecting a place from economic poaching from another jurisdiction down the road.
Studies have shown that casinos have a very modest impact on employment, sometimes increasing it, sometimes not, with success very dependent on the particular circumstances in that location. Meanwhile, they tend to decrease state revenue, even though gambling tends to be taxed at a higher rate than other things. There are also harms from bringing an addictive form of entertainment into the community, which wind up costing money to ameliorate too.
And those studies I’m citing are not very new, so I imagine some of the effects have changed as more and more states and cities embraced gambling, with the revenue effects likely plunging even more. Taxpayers are paying to subsidize a form of entertainment that winds up lowering what their state has available to spend on services and other priorities, in exchange for the possibility, but not the guarantee, of a few new jobs.
Still, nothing can seem to shake the hold that gambling as a bottomless pot of gold has on lawmakers and candidates. Not an election cycle goes by, I feel like, when someone isn’t putting new casinos out there as an economic fix: This last time around, it was New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang that I noticed the most, but I’m sure there were others. Next time it will be someone else, or a new round of ballot initiatives.
But the fact remains that casinos are a bad bet for local economic development. Gambling may be fun, but it usually doesn’t make you rich. That goes for your community too.
Pat Garofalo is the author of The Billionaire Boondoggle: How Our Politicians Let Corporations and Bigwigs Steal Our Money and Jobs, the Boondoggle newsletter, and the director of state and local policy at the American Economic Liberties Project.