A frequent advertising commercial from a few television seasons past was the assertion made by an investment company that they make money the old-fashioned way, “they earn it.” Implied in the promotion was the idea that the company provided clients solid and sound advice to grow their investments over time. The idea that the company could turn investors into overnight millionaires was not suggested in the ad campaign. Perhaps that is why it is no longer being aired. It seems to me the order of the day is for “quick fix” solutions.
It comes as no surprise that state governments are experiencing serious shortfalls in state revenues given the depth and the length of the current economic recession the country is experiencing. When the times get tough, the topic of how to shore up the state coffers without raising taxes increasingly turns to gambling as the solution for state officials. States are aggressively expanding legalized gambling as a means to increase revenue streams and also for the state to keep residents from crossing state lines to gamble elsewhere. Gambling will expand in 12 states this year in an effort to generate an extra $2 billion in gambling taxes. Casinos, fueled by the on-line variety, are now legal in 40 states, according to the Casino City Press. That is an increase of one per year since 2000. In addition, states are relaxing regulations on casino locations, hours of operation and betting limits. Gambling seems to have turned into a competitive business for states — many appear to be just trying to keep up with the states next door to them.
The argument against legalized gambling has long been that the short term revenue comes with long-term social costs like addiction and increased crime. Skeptics also argue that the revenue is not likely to keep pace with growing budgetary needs. As more and more options open up for people to gamble, it can become a zero-sum game as states compete for the same set of players. Neither argument has been strong enough however to overcome the political reasons to approve some form of gambling in lieu of raising taxes. Supporters of legalized gambling hold that the revenue tends to be recession proof. That belief may change as revenue results roll in from legalized gambling during the latest recession.
A recent New York Times report said that casinos and lotteries in most states are reporting a downturn in revenue for the first time, Texas was a notable exception. The decline is causing a drop in collections by state and local governments at a time when sales tax revenues are also decreasing. The drop has led some experts to wonder if the gaming industry is reaching market saturation. The concern may explain the efforts of states like New Jersey where they have repealed the smoking ban in casinos and Illinois where they are considering offering free drinks on riverboats as a means of attracting more gamblers.
At the national political level, members of both political parties in Congress are engaged in a heated battle over health care reform. Both sides agree that the current system is broken and that insurance reform is badly needed. The battle seems to be bogged down over the government’s role in the new plan. Members of one party see a government health care option as essential and members of the other major party are as adamant that it should not be a part of any new plan.
State Rep. Jim Keffer told me recently that part of the problem is everyone has an insurance story to tell. It is either a personal account, one of a family member or friend where they do not feel that the current system worked. Many large employers in the country have turned to self-funding plans where they use insurance companies for administrative and billing services but not for underwriting. Perhaps there is a national solution in exploring a similar strategy that is apart from a government run plan. Medical insurance plans for retired citizens and military veterans may provide insights into how a government option could work for the rest of U.S. citizens.
Tackling tough issues and negotiating with each other to develop meaningful and lasting legislation is what Congress is supposed to do. It is time to do it; it is not the time to follow the quick fix approach of too many state legislators.
Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at bob.brincefield