Even in Puritan New England, casino profits call

Not quite Las Vegas – yet – the region mulls the balance of old culture and new cash.

Here in the land of Puritan preachers, gambling was once scorned as a grave sin – and a waste of precious time and money. Massachusetts even slapped stiff fines on those caught carrying dice or cards.

But these days, things are different. There's new momentum across New England – and the nation – to expand gambling with new casinos, slot machines, and more. Nationwide, states reaped $26.8 billion in gambling revenues in 2000 alone. Now five of the six states in New England – and 26 states nationally – may consider gambling expansion in the coming year.

Overall, "You've got state budget crunches – and the fact that gambling revenue seems like easy money – as well as a very aggressive industry that's knocking on the door of nearly every state legislature," says Tim Kelly, who was executive director of the federally funded National Gambling Impact Study Commission.

To some, the New England shift signals an increasingly dominant ethos of entertainment and luck that's blotting out the old Puritan view.

Yet the hard-headed Yankee skepticism hasn't gone soft. Two New England legislatures are taking in-depth looks at gambling's effects. Meanwhile, antigambling groups are newly energized. Some even argue the industry is akin to Big Tobacco – dealing irresponsibly with public-health problems of crime and bankruptcies that stem from gambling addictions. This, critics say, may be grounds for big lawsuits.

In New England, "There's still a strong antigambling element," says Joseph Conforti, who teaches about New England at the University of Southern Maine. How this storied region deals with gambling expansion – how it balances between gambling's growth and its societal risks – may serve as a standard for the nation.

At present, states appear to be drooling over huge financial jackpots:

• Massachusetts residents now spend more on lotteries than citizens of any other state – an average of $625 per person per year. Meanwhile, there's discussion about a plan to open a casino in the state.

• Gambling is Rhode Island's third-biggest source of revenue – behind income and sales taxes. The state is weighing new video slots – and a new casino to poach some of the $1 billion spent yearly at Connecticut casinos by residents of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. But first, its legislature is taking nearly a year to probe gambling's effects.

• Connecticut, which has two mega-casinos, takes in nearly $600 million in annual gambling revenues – almost as much as Nevada. It's debating whether to allow three new native American casinos.

• Maine is considering a new casino, too. And its legislature has just begun a serious study of the issue. The native American tribe that wants to build the casino says it could generate $100 million in yearly revenues – and more than 4,000 jobs.

An economic boost

Indeed, the weak economy has forced cash-strapped states across the nation to scramble for money. Many are looking to gambling. Even those states with little or no gambling are intrigued: In November, Tennessee – one of three states with no legal gambling – will vote on whether to start a lottery.

Not since the economic doldrums of the early 1990s – when riverboat gambling spread across the Midwest – has there been such national interest.

As for New England, there's actually a long history of certain types of gambling. All 13 original colonies had lotteries to raise money for civic improvement. Non-Puritan churches often had raffles or bingo. And at state fairs, Yankees have long bet on ox pulls and harness races.

But the broader acceptance of gambling came as cities became more crowded – and as the region diversified. Irish and Italian immigrants were far less averse to games of chance. Among these working-class, typically Roman Catholic citizens, "There was less uneasiness with a kind of worldliness," says Professor Conforti. "If you went out and sinned, you'd try to stop, but confession was always there."

Jobs, cash – and lawsuits

Now the region is considering casinos and slots. And the debate is in full gear. The benefits are obvious: "Casino gaming creates lots of well-paying jobs, it's a clean industry with no smokestacks, and it's the subject of heavy taxation," says Frank Fahrenkopf, head of the industry's lobby group, the American Gaming Association.

And casino employees tend to get paid more than others in service-sector jobs.

But there are also costs. One researcher testified before the Rhode Island legislature's commission that gambling costs the state about $20 million per year in bankruptcies, crime, and other troubles related to "problem gamblers" – between 1 percent and 5 percent of all gamblers.

It's a theme critics are increasingly jumping on. They point out that in Quebec, Canada, the coroner's office has ruled that 48 suicides in the past three years were linked to gambling. A lawsuit against the government there claims state-run video slot machines are a public-health hazard. A federal lawsuit in Indiana claims a riverboat casino didn't do enough to stop one of its patrons from losing $175,000 – his entire life's savings.

Meanwhile, Scott Harshbarger – the former Massachusetts Attorney General who now heads the civic group Common Cause – has begun to warn of potential for tobacco-like lawsuits. If the entire gambling industry "doesn't stand up and say there's a public-health issue here and take serious steps to deal with the problems," he says, "that could lead to conditions where a lawsuit is possible."

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