I know, I’ve seemed a bit obsessed with the casino issue lately. In part, that’s because (disclosure alert) I spent a lot of time working on Repeal The Casino Deal’s ballot question case that is currently under consideration at the Supreme Judicial Court.
But in more important part, it’s because the casino issue one of the few that is drawing sharp contrasts between the candidates in a variety of races, while major differences on other big issues are proving hard to find. Yes, Don Berwick’s support for single-payer health care sets him apart from the other Democrats running for Governor. But even if Berwick wins, single-payer is years away at best. Casinos are coming much sooner than that.
If the SJC doesn’t allow the question on the ballot, the issue will likely fade somewhat. But if the question does make the ballot, it will be a huge topic right up through primary day. And I think that’s a good thing.
Why? Am I so blinded by my work on the casino case that I’ve turned into a single-issue voter? Well, maybe a little. But, actually, I think there are bigger-picture issues lurking in the casino debate that tell us a lot, not only about the candidates’ stands on casinos, but more broadly about what’s important to them.
Consider, for example, a candidate whom I really want to like, but whose stand on this issue I find to be totally unsatisfactory: Juliette Kayyem. She’s been asked a number of times about casinos, and her response has been consistently along the lines of “I support the revenue that casinos are going to bring.”
But this is obviously an inadequate answer. There are lots of ways we could raise a shit-ton of revenue. We could, for example, repeal the $4,400 personal income tax exemption. That would probably bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But it would do so by substantially increasing taxes on the lowest income taxpayers, while making barely a dent in the tax bill of wealthier taxpayers. It is therefore a terrible idea, and surely neither Kayyem nor any other Democratic candidate would seriously consider this proposal – even though it would bring in a lot of money that could be spent on schools, health care, and other awesome stuff.
In other words, it doesn’t make sense to support a policy simply because it brings in revenue. You have to look at the policy itself. Is the policy fair? Does it bring in revenue from people who can afford to pay more? Or does the way in which the policy brings in revenue cause more harm than good?
In other words, Kayyem’s answer is a dodge. Of course, being able to spend more money on schools (for example) would be better than not being able to do so, other things being equal. But other things are not equal. A massive policy change like bringing casinos into the state will do a lot more than bring in a few extra bucks. Especially because (if the experience of every casino on the planet is any guide) we already know that the revenue will indeed come mostly from those who can’t really afford it, a position on casinos that doesn’t engage those other impacts is simply not good enough.
The casino question can tell us how the candidates balance the benefit of the revenue and jobs that casinos would undoubtedly bring (they’d certainly bring some, though probably less than has been predicted) against the costs that they would undoubtedly impose. That balancing, in turn, can give a lot of insight into the candidates’ priorities. Also, the casino question is a policy issue that, at its core, is easy to understand: do you want your town (or the town down the road) to look like Las Vegas, or don’t you? It’s an issue that the press likes to cover; it has big personalities associated with it (Steve Wynn gave Commonwealth Magazine one of the best interviews in recent Massachusetts political history); and, if the question is on the ballot, it will have a staggering amount of money thrown at it this fall.
In short, if the question makes the ballot, there will be no escaping the casino issue for the candidates, or for the voters. Nor should there be.