So here’s the premise for this entire commentary: gambling is a bad bet for Wisconsin.
Right now, the Menominee Indian tribe wants to open what is known as an “off-reservation” casino in Kenosha. This is a project that has been on the table for nearly 20 years. Numerous roadblocks, including the indictment of the tribe’s developer for illegal campaign contributions, have, to this point, prevented the opening of this new gambling establishment. Recently, however, the tribe received the federal approval it needs to move forward and has now asked Governor Walker to approve the casino. According to the law, the Governor has the final word, trumping even the decision from the federal Department of the Interior.
Governor Walker’s response has been very measured. He has said before he would approve the Kenosha casino, three criteria have to be met: 1) the plan must have community support, 2) there can be no net increase in gambling, and 3) the state’s other 10 tribes must agree.
Given the rancor that has existed between and among the tribes over the years, especially on these “off-reservation” casinos, getting the other 10 tribes to agree to giving up some of their gambling and reaching total consensus on the Kenosha plan is a very tall order.
I can say that I am personally hopeful that the criteria are not met, as pleased as I am that we actually have these criteria. When Jim Doyle was governor, he basically expanded gambling in this state exponentially and had no legislative input on doing so, so I’m especially glad that Governor Walker has laid down some pretty stiff restrictions if this casino is going to become a reality.
According to a report issued by Wisconsin Policy Research Institute in 2012, “Today, virtually everyone in Wisconsin is within a two-hour drive of a casino. Gambling opportunities are numerous and ubiquitous. As of October 2010, the casinos in the state boasted 16,643 gaming devices (slot machines, etc.) and 345 gaming tables for poker, roulette and so forth. Casinos are located in 17 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties….”
Of course, the argument being used by those who want the casino is that it will bring in jobs and help the families of those who get employed by the casino and boost the overall economy of the area. However, experts looking at data of other places with casinos don’t see a net gain in all those areas. The money the low- to middle-income people spend on gambling—most of which they lose—is money that would have likely been spent on real products and real services that have real benefits for the people and the community—not just the tribe who owns the casino.
Look, gambling is not a victimless activity. By its nature, it’s addictive. The Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling reported that the calls they received in 2012 were nearly record-setting and represented a 6.9% increase over 2011. As Rose Gruber, director of the Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling says, “he total number of calls is really just part of the story. There are other significant numbers in our annual Helpline Report that show how devastating a gambling addiction can be.” Gruber says in 2012, “45 callers reported thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts, 37 callers reported having to file for bankruptcy due to their gambling problem, and the average gambling debt of callers was $39,849.” And these are just the reports from those who volunteered this information, since privacy laws prevent the Council from requiring the callers to share this information.
These calls and these statistics represent real people and real families. According to Gruber, anywhere from 5-7 percent of Wisconsin’s population are believed to be problem or compulsive gamblers. That’s at least 345,000 people and likely over 86,000 families directly impacted by gambling. We know every new casino makes it easier for new people to get involved with gambling and easier for problem gamblers to feed their addiction.
Governor Walker is right in being cautious about approving this casino. Of course he wants new jobs in Wisconsin; we all do. But I am guessing the governor knows that not all industries and not all jobs are morally equivalent. Some do more damage than good to our state’s most valuable resource—her families. And when that happens that’s never good for Wisconsin. Gambling qualifies as one of those industries. I repeat: gambling is a very bad bet for The Badger State.