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Table games issue runs deeper than crime and schools

May 13, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

You can see the ad campaign now: "What happens in Ranson stays in Ranson."

Or not.

But among the fears of table-game opponents is the possibility that Jefferson County, W.Va., will become another freewheeling, anything-goes Las Vegas or Atlantic City if voters approve a referendum next month that would effectively legalize casinos.

The flip side, obviously, is that Jefferson County could become another Las Vegas or Atlantic City - i.e., rich. What school system, for example, couldn't use another $3 million a year? That's especially true in Jefferson, which needs to build new schools to accommodate the county's rapid growth.

Certainly there is appeal to the idea that outsiders will be paying to educate your kids.

Gambling may be a sin in the biblical sense, but if it is, it's a sin that spends a lot of time uttering Hail Marys. It pays for plenty of good works, benefiting everyone from kindergartners to senior citizens as boatloads of gambling cash, or a percentage anyway, blackjack their way into government treasuries.

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But this can't be considered altruism. It's simply the casinos saying, allow us our vices and we will be happy to share the loot.

So there you go, the pertinent question being: Is a superior education (or any other social program) worth it if it's funded by dollars of ill repute?

Gambling opponents have already paid their obligatory visit to the courts, arguing that when West Virginia voters approved gambling in 1984, they were supporting a state lottery, not table games. That would be the common sense assumption, which probably means the courts won't see it that way.

So next up will be the fear campaign aimed at convincing voters that table games lead to wave upon wave of crime.

This is both true and false. When Atlantic City legalized gambling, its per-capita crime rate shot from No. 50 in the nation to No. 1. But when you factor in Atlantic City's legions of nonresident tourists, the per-capita crime rate appears to be about the same as most cities.

Further, much of the crime increase is self-contained within the gambling universe - employee scams, gambling cheats and pickpockets targeting casino patrons.

As for the perceived connection between gambling and organized crime, this was true 40 years ago, but not now. The gambling industry is probably more tightly regulated and closely watched than your average nuclear power plant. And since the state government of West Virginia has such a fine historical record of battling fraud and corruption, you can be assured that - oh, never mind.

Gambling proponents have two important tools in their arsenal: the aforementioned education connection and economic development.

Jefferson's school board has already hinted that casino cash could be used to build schools, freeing up money to hand out in the form of raises for teachers. And while casino jobs may not be the best, they are still jobs - not to mention all the spinoff work that table games will likely create.

The demographic of the typical slot-machine player is an old lady in tennis shoes. Players of table games are, for lack of a better word, a more sophisticated set, who will require nice hotel rooms, fine dining and perhaps some upscale shopping options for a spouse who may not be so enchanted by the roll of the dice. Some will even fall in love with Jefferson County and decide to move in.

Economic incentives are powerful things. People who want work, people who want more business, people who want the value of their property to increase and people who want raises comprise a formidable electorate. Even if the remainder of the voters oppose gambling by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin, table game opponents have little chance.

But every gambling story needs a wild card, and in Jefferson County it is this: A casino could significantly alter the nature of the community, a fact that stands to resonate - and not positively - with people who believe that growth is already out of control.

A casino means more people, more traffic and more development.

At its root, gambling is nothing more than tourism, and tourism is often viewed as the Holy Grail of economic development. Tourists bring their dollars into a community, but they do not send their children to community schools, tap into community sewer lines or demand expensive community services.

But neat and clean as this appears to be, there is little doubt a casino would change the look, the feel and the ambiance of Jefferson County - for better or worse depends on an individual's perspective.

We've seen the gambling progression, from horse racing to lotteries to slots to, possibly, table games. The nose of Bugsy Siegel is under the tent. What if the next logical step in the progression is a scrapping of the requirement that slots and/or table games be limited to horse or dog tracks?

Today that notion might seem far-fetched. But when lotteries were approved in 1984, the thought that four West Virginia counties might be home to casino gambling would have seemed even further-fetched. And should that restriction be lifted, is there any doubt that Harrah's and the rest might like a slice of the Washington metropolitan-area pie?

A fundamentalist school teacher with a couple of job-seeking kids and a love for Jefferson County's rural charm will be faced next month with a tough decision indeed. But so will the rest of the county's voters. This isn't some throw-away election for state lawmaker. This is an election about the future, and no resident should choose one direction or the other without giving the matter an appreciable degree of thought.

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