Why the gambling bill holds Promise for Cape Cod communities

posted Sep 21, 2011, 1:33 PM by Elysse Magnotto-Cleary

By: State Representative Cleon H. Turner 

September 21, 2011

Approaching last term’s casino debate, I wrote that there was next to nothing in the legislation for Cape communities. As a result, I filed an amendment in that prior legislation that would have provided for an equitable adjustment to lottery distributions for communities that produce significant amounts of lottery revenues, which would have been a benefit to nearly every Cape town. That equitable distribution would have been possible using gaming revenues and would have ensured that, even with that equitable adjustment, no city or town would see a reduction in lottery distributions.  An inequitable distribution formula cannot be made equitable without holding ever community getting large sums harmless against any loss in revenues. The amendment I filed was not given any consideration, so I voted against the gaming bill last term. The gist of the amendment this term was the same as the previous one: once there were gaming revenues available for distribution to cities and towns, no city or town would get less than ten percent of the revenues produced in that city or town for the lottery.

 The legislation proposed this term was, essentially, the same as that previous legislation with some relatively minor changes. I revised my amendment from last term to address some of the changes and to address what I believed would be some concerns from other legislators but the ten percent adjustment remained.

The gambling bill debate is a perfect example of how little thought is given by off Cape legislators to Cape economic issues. The carrot being used to sell gambling proposals to citizens is additional money for local aid. That money, if realized once gambling is up and running in the commonwealth, would be distributed according to the current lottery formula. One need not know a lot about the lottery formula to know that Cape towns’ share of  gaming  revenues would not likely cover losses to the Cape tourism industry once full scale casinos are operating in Massachusetts.

The carrot is so important to proponents of casinos and slots at the race tracks that many are not even willing to seriously consider making the distribution of the gaming local aid funds fairer to communities already getting less from the lottery and communities that will likely see a decline in tourism dollars once casinos are operating. There is a fear among legislative leaders (perhaps not unreasonable) that, if sticky and complex issues such as distribution formulas are brought up for discussion, they will be faced with multitudes of requests for changes.

The current inequity is that the lottery distribution system is based solely on the population of a community compared to its real estate values. That approach fails to consider incomes levels of residents of the community, the relative ages of those living in the community, the poverty level of the community and other relevant factors. A further inequity is that towns that generate the lottery revenues usually get much less from those revenues than towns that generate less for the lottery and, in some cases, towns that actually prohibit the sale of lottery tickets. A majority of the towns that generate one third of all lottery revenues and that receive less than ten percent in distributions have resident incomes below the state mean income level and have significant percentages of the children in their schools qualifying for free or reduced lunches ( measure of the poverty level of the community). Those factors are at least as relevant as comparing population to real estate values. Adding gaming revenues to the distribution as proposed by the legislation would provide a rare opportunity to correct these inequities and not only hold towns harmless but would provide significant additional revenues to those communities already benefiting disproportionately.

Though my amendment, as originally written, did not get into the current legislation, I was able to negotiate with leadership for language that begins the process of review of the lottery and local aid formulas. This bipartisan feat was clearly a result of leadership recognizing that a review of inequities in distribution formulas needs to be undertaken. The amendment language calls for a report to the legislature by a date certain before gaming revenues can be distributed to cities and towns.  The report should help in redefining “need” by including median incomes, number of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches, and poverty levels- all factors that are not examined under the current lottery formula.

There are many serious concerns about gaming in Massachusetts. I was able to vote “yes” due to the recognition by leadership that it is time to review an inequitable distribution formula and because, as a result of that review, there is a better likelihood that the Cape will see some benefit from the legislation.