Tuesday, February 20, 2018

States' gambling revenue promises rarely met

WASHINGTON — No state helped the gambling industry come out of a two-year recessionary slump more than Pennsylvania, which has seen more than a $1 billion increase in revenue during the past two fiscal years.

That growth has catapulted the state's industry to near the front of the pack nationally, with some experts speculating that it could soon overtake New Jersey, home to Atlantic City, as second only to Nevada in overall gambling revenue.

But while those tax revenues have risen steadily over the past few years, they have yet to achieve the goal promised by former Gov. Ed Rendell when he first stumped for the legalization of slot machines eight years ago: $1 billion in property tax relief for Pennsylvanians.

The state was more than $200 million short of that target last year, and though the state still expects up to four new gambling facilities to open at some point, officials aren't sure when — or if — they'll meet Rendell's promise. "We'll have to wait and see," said Richard McGarvey, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.

Last fall, Massachusetts became the 16th state to legalize commercial casinos, with Gov. Deval Patrick and other backers estimating that it would ultimately bring the state about $400 million a year. But Massachusetts and other states, such as Florida and New York, that are considering legalizing commercial casinos might rethink their estimates based on the track record of other states that recently legalized gambling. (A plan to build three $2 billion mega casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties was defeated in the Florida Legislature earlier this year. The issue is expected to come up again.)

Stateline, a nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States, analyzed 13 states that legalized casinos, racetrack casinos (known as racinos) or lotteries in the past 10 years. It found that more than two-thirds of them failed to live up to the initial promises or projections made by political and industry champions of legalizing gambling. That doesn't account for inflation or the cost of any of the potential negative consequences of gambling, such as increased addiction or crime, that are often cited by opponents of legalization.

Explanations for the missed targets vary. Some officials and experts say the recession is to blame, while others cite a gambling market that is nearing saturation as more states see gambling as a revenue fix rather than a tool to drum up tourism or development.

While on the campaign trail in 2002, former Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry predicted that a lottery could bring the state $300 million a year to help education. The Democrat later revised that down to $150 million, but the actual return has been more like $70 million.

Another state with ambitious projections was Arkansas, where the lottery hasn't yet provided $100 million for college scholarships in either of its first two years, as was promised by former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. That still remains the goal, said Julie Baldridge, director of public affairs and legislative relations for the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery. But she doesn't see it growing too much beyond that.

"We have what I would describe as a plain vanilla lottery in Arkansas," Baldridge said, citing the lack of video lottery or keno as factors that limit revenue. "We're going to make less money than a lottery that has all the bells and whistles."

Even among states that have met expectations, success hasn't been immediate. New York has exceeded the $300 million to $400 million annual target for racino tax revenues promised by legislators in 2001, but that mark was met three years later than expected. North Carolina didn't collect an anticipated $400 million from its state lottery until the lottery's third full year — four years after the legislation passed.

The recession, which caused the gambling industry to post negative growth numbers in 2008 and 2009, has been to blame for some of the delays in states that have missed expectations so far.

Stephen Martino has seen firsthand its impact on two states in the past few years. He was executive director of the Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission when the state legalized casinos in 2007 and then became director of the Maryland State Lottery Agency, which oversees casinos, in April 2010, months before the state's first casino opened.

In Kansas, he said, three of the four initial casino plans fell apart because of changed conditions during the recession. "People had bid based on one set of expectations in 2007," he said, "that was no longer the case in the fourth quarter of 2008." It took nearly 21/2 years for the state's first casino, in Dodge City, to open, in December 2009. The state's second and third casinos, in Mulvane and Kansas City, opened only this winter.

The recession slowed construction on Maryland sites, but there have been other hurdles as well. Progress on one of the state's largest planned facilities, Maryland Live! Casino, at the Arundel Mills Mall in Hanover, was delayed by an unsuccessful effort by gambling opponents and horse racing interests in Anne Arundel County to block the casino's approval. It's now scheduled to open this spring.

Already, the state has revised downward its initial $660 million estimate of tax benefits to the state. Part of the reason is that casino operators so far aren't going for the maximum number of slots allowable at each location. Maryland has the country's second-highest tax rate on slot revenue, according to the American Gaming Association, with the state getting two-thirds of profits. "Some companies said it's not even worth it to bid on these licenses," said Holly Wetzel, a spokeswoman for the American Gaming Association. "Companies have to feel like they're going to get a return on their investment."

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