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December 16, 2013

Mitchel Olszak: As gambling reaches its limit, are drugs and prostitution far behind?

NEW CASTLE — Pennsylvania lawmakers sure love gambling.

And why not? It’s like the goose that lays the golden egg. All you have to do is legalize gambling, insist that the commonwealth receive a healthy piece of the action and you have a pile of easy money at your disposal.

With it you can fund a variety of politically popular programs, ranging from senior citizen services to property tax relief. And it’s all possible without the need to raise taxes.

But the golden eggs are looking a little tarnished as of late. The most recent data coming from Pennsylvania’s casinos indicate the money being collected is leveling off — and in some instances even declining. While table games revenue rose in the most recent annual report, money taken from casino slots dipped.

One reason appears to be competition. Pennsylvania’s seeming success with gambling has not been lost on its neighbors. Recently, both Ohio and New York have decided to pursue dramatically expanded gambling.

This has lured gamblers away from the Keystone State. And it’s a trend whose full impact has yet to be felt.

For instance, Presque Isle Downs in Erie saw a 16 percent decline in gross revenue in the past fiscal year. This coincides with the opening of a new casino in nearby Cleveland.

It also helps to explain why the owners of Presque Isle Downs are putting up a fight to stop approval for a harness racing track and casino in Lawrence County. If this facility — along with a similar one under construction in Austintown, Ohio — siphons customers, the Erie site is likely to suffer even more.

And it also helps to explain why Pennsylvania lawmakers are looking at new ways to expand gambling in the commonwealth. If you’re having a problem getting blood from a stone, just try squeezing harder.

Recently, the Legislature approved small games of chance for bars and now the state Senate has authorized a study in the commonwealth, with the apparent goal of exploring the potential for online gambling.

Yet all of this activity seems to suggest that in order to collect more money from gambling, all you have to do is increase options for gamblers. The flaw in that thinking may be that gamblers already are giving it their all. At some point, the well runs dry.

While it may be that plenty of people love to pour their money into slot machines or lose it in other fashion, not everyone falls into that category. Creating more gambling options that make it easier to separate citizens from their cash works only if there are untapped sources still out there. But where’s the evidence of that?

Sooner or later, lawmakers will crap out when it comes to more gambling. Then what happens?

Like compulsive gamblers, many politicians seem to have become addicted to the notion of something for nothing. Legalizing the vice of gambling is popular because it involves no blatant taxation. So I expect this trend to continue.

In Colorado, lawmakers have legalized the sale of marijuana with a hefty fee attached to it. If you don’t like the fee, then don’t do drugs.

I expect this trend to expand throughout the country, and not just for marijuana. Why not legalize all sorts of drugs in order to take advantage of new sources of revenue?

And while we’re at it, what about prostitution? There’s probably profit for states to make there as well.

Some people may be shocked at the notion. But by embracing the vice of gambling in all its forms, politicians have demonstrated that ethics aren’t the issue. All that matters is the money.

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