Expanding gambling has been proposed by Republicans in the Legislature as a way to raise new revenue to bridge the $1.4 billion gap between the projected revenue and the actual expenses of running state government.
Allowing slot machines in non-tribal casinos wouldn't bring in enough to balance the budget, but it would be helpful. It's anticipated that slot machines would generate $160 million in the next fiscal year (July to July) and $380 million over the two-year budget cycle.
Although that's some very serious money, expanding gambling doesn't have a good feel. Too often people who gamble can't afford to lose. And some people have serious gambling problems that threaten their jobs and tear apart their families.
But it's difficult to oppose the expansion of gambling on moral grounds because the state already profits heavily from the state-run lottery games. Beyond that, the state already sanctions casinos where card games are played. And tribal casinos -- where slot machines are allowed -- are on Native American land around the state.
Adding slot machines to non-tribal casinos just gets the state in a little deeper.
Nevertheless, if the Legislature does opt to go this route, we would hope some of the new revenue would be skimmed off the top to be used to help people with gambling addictions.
At this point, the tribes -- with an estimated $1.95 billion in net receipts in fiscal year 2011, up from $1.57 billion in 2009 -- don't share any of the revenue with the state. If a deal could be worked out so the state could get some tax or fee revenue from the tribes for essentially not allowing nontribal casinos to cut into the tribe's slot machine monopoly, that would be superior to expanding gambling.
Making such a deal would seem to be a long shot.
Given that and the fact this budget problem needs to be fixed, expanding gambling is an option worth considering. It should not be the first option, however. Lawmakers need to look at what else in state government can be cut.
In the end, they will have to weigh whether those cuts are more objectionable than expanding gambling.