In the Bizarro World of Harrisburg policymaking, the more citizens lose while gambling at Pennsylvania casinos, the more tax revenue flows into state coffers.
Yet, the more the state takes in from gambling — including a record haul of more than $3.2 billion last year — the less it does to cure Harrisburg’s budget deficits.
While last year’s state budget was the first in four years enacted before the June 30 deadline, that rare show of bipartisan sanity was likely motivated by the fact that Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, everyone in the Republican-controlled state House, and half the Senate were up for reelection in the fall. Not to mention, the $32.7 billion budget deal contained several one-time gimmicks to mask deficits, such as moving $800 million in Medicaid expenses off the main books.
So, it was no surprise shortly after Election Day when the Independent Fiscal Office projected a $1.7 billion deficit for the coming fiscal year. (The Wolf administration expects the state to finish the fiscal year with a surplus, thanks to an improving economy.)
In the meantime, gambling is one of Pennsylvania’s few growth industries. The Gaming Control Board’s recent report of record revenue is still considered somewhat flat from previous years. But the state — spurred by the influential gambling lobby — has become skilled at finding new ways to entice residents to lose money.
When casinos were first legalized — during a late-night vote with little debate in 2004 — it was just for slot machines. Six years later, the state legalized table games, paving the way for full-blown casinos. In 2017, the state legislature allowed casino gambling in airports, truck stops, betting on sports, and online lottery ticket sales.
The state’s endless gambling expansion underscores the insanity of a policy designed to strip more and more wealth from citizens. Since the first casino opened, people have lost $25 billion in the state’s slot machines, and left an additional $6 billion on the gaming tables. The recent introduction of sports wagering will extract even more from people.
Casino gambling isn’t just another form of passive entertainment. Studies show anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent of slot-machine revenues come from problem gamblers. Casino executives at Parx, SugarHouse, and Harrah’s said most of their gamblers visit three to six times a week.
In short, the casino industry — and the state’s gambling policy — depends largely on addicts. Harrisburg lawmakers are also hooked on gambling because slots revenues are taxed at 54 percent, effectively making the state the majority partner in the casino racket.
But where do the billions of dollars in annual gambling revenues go? The main argument for legalizing slots years ago was to lower property-tax bills. How has that worked out for you? Meanwhile, the horse-racing industry — another business built on gambling — gets more tax revenue from casinos than the Health or Agriculture Departments. Unfortunately, the nearly $3 billion that declining industry has gotten since the beginning hasn’t helped turn it around.
It’s time lawmakers rethought a policy that takes billions of dollars from people, including many gambling addicts, and each year gives hundreds of millions to horses.