Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Waking Up In Vegas

OK, so I made a little documentary based on my years of personal experience fighting casinos - which was not boring!  I hope to publish a book as well.  Please watch, learn and enjoy.  Some of you may even get a glimpse of yourselves!  (Oh and don't miss the credits.)

Waking Up In Vegas:  A true story of casinos in Massachusetts

Total time, about 35 minutes.  Each part is about 18 minutes long.

Part 1 - This part sets the stage. The local fight that became a statewide movement, and lesser known impacts and business methods of casinos that I learned along the way.

Part 2 - Follows the dark comedy that was the legalization process.

p.s. If you like what you see, please LIKE and/or SHARE it on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Region C Playlist: My comments to the Mass Gaming Commission set to music

To the Massachusetts Gaming Commission as to whether they should expand the deadline for casino proposals in Region C:

American Pie

The unthinkable has happened.

A casino has shut its doors in Mississippi. A struggling billion dollar casino in Atlantic City received millions in taxpayer incentives, only to go bankrupt earlier this month. Most of New Jersey's casinos have filed for bankruptcy. Delaware has proposed lowering taxes on and bailing out its casinos, and has added sports betting to prevent to prevent layoffs.

Pennsylvania has efficiently carpet bombed the Northeast with 11 casinos since 2006. Maryland legalized casinos in 2008, Massachusetts in 2011, and New York voted to expand gambling last year. All in all, 26 casinos have been built in the Northeast since 2004, with proposals for seemingly more every day.

The repercussions of this building boom are now being felt here in New England. Both Connecticut casinos have eliminated thousands of jobs in recent years, and Foxwoods recently closed one of it's gaming floors, ironically named “The Rainmaker Casino”. Rhode Island added table games at Twin River, and investors hope to upgrade Newport Grand with more slots and table games to better compete with Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, gambling revenues are down all over the country.

And the threat of Internet gambling looms on the horizon.

They say that Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. But it doesn't take a genius to understand that a pie can only be sliced so thin before it starts to fall apart.

The gambling market has become so saturated that the lucrative returns assumed and promised back when Massachusetts began debating legalized gambling are never going to be realized.

Turns out the gambling industry is not a golden goose. It has limitations like every other competitive industry.

I've heard both the Governor and MGC Chairman Crosby state that the gambling law doesn't necessarily require that Massachusetts build three casinos and a slots parlor. If so, then why does the MGC continue to push for that very number? And why in Region C - already so close to the Connecticut and Rhode Island casinos and Plainville slots parlor, with a tribal casino still on the table, and other proposals on the table in the not-very-far-off Boston area.

Especially troubling is that the MGC appears to be wooing developers to the region. Is that really the job of a regulator?

If developers aren't anxious to expand here, perhaps they have a good reason.

Forget You

Why does it appear that the Gambling Industry continually receives concessions from both lawmakers and regulators?

In 2007 Middleboro voted to approve an agreement for a tribal casino, but in a separate vote, voted that they didn't want a casino at all. But the board of selectmen happily signed the agreement anyway and within a month the tribe's chairman would be in jail.

The Governor repeatedly refused to meet with regional casino task forces that represented millions of Massachusetts citizens, but met frequently with the tribe and various casino lobbyists.

For years, Massachusetts citizens would sign in FIRST to speak at legislative hearings, only to be kept waiting for hours, all day or into the night to speak, well after the press had left. At one hearing where I had signed in first, I watched as gambling lobbyists were given the floor earlier and allowed unlimited time to speak, while I was gaveled to silence as soon as my three minutes were up.

Because of casinos, I have personally created web sites, written newsletters, traveled across the state, held signs, attended meetings, testified before committees, maintained databases, protested, maintained a blog, created videos, struggled with Federal Indian law, wrote to my elected officials, survived threats, educated voters, collected signatures and have repeatedly squared both politicians and the press. For over seven years.

There are no casino proponents, nobody clicking on a poll or answering a survey, no editorial board, anonymous commenter, casino owner, gambling lobbyist or gaming 'expert', who has maintained the passion and perseverance that I, and my colleagues around the state have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate on this issue.

And yet, we can't get a fair shake. Our voices aren't counted.  Everything is always done for the sake, and the ultimate benefit of the industry. And the powers that be shake their heads in wonder at why the general public has lost faith in them.

Stop Draggin' My Heart Around

Why is it important to me that you do not extend the deadline in region C?

In 2007 an old friend from Middleboro asked me to come to a meeting about a casino proposed near his home. He would become part of the opposition movement there, but soon had to step back. I was later told that the stress of the casino fight has sent him to the hospital on a couple of occasions.

And that's what it's like.

While I realize you hear differently from proponents and gambling industry insiders, for many of us, the thought of a casino near one's home or business, fighting billionaires, pleading with tone-deaf politicians and dealing those who believe a casino is their personal pot at the end of the rainbow can be an incredibly taxing, financially draining and emotionally devastating experience. And I know because since the casino scare in Middleboro near my home, my own town has seen it's own never-ending share of casino proposals, and proposal in towns nearby. I am surrounded.

When does it end?

For many of us who don't live in the affluent cities and towns that will never see a casino proposal, it is more than our property values at stake. It is the life we choose to live, the values we share, our quality of life and the place we raise our children.

Please stop giving the gambling industry more chances to divide our communities, turn neighbor against neighbor, feed into low expectations, and force surrounding towns to beg at the trough for handouts.

Stop expanding the deadline for region C.

UPDATE:  As once might expect, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, the regulatory and marketing arm and  of the gambling industry, approved extending the deadline for applicants in Region C.  Unanimously.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Ring of Fire - a repost in honor of Father's Day

Somehow, or maybe not, we are related. Distantly, if so. I don’t know her name. We just seem to show up at all the same wakes.

This time she’s got a baby with her. He’s very well behaved, with a full head of hair and a sweet smile. "He’s got your eyes," I tell her.

"No." She replies a little bit too firmly, "He’s got his father's eyes."

I look around for the boy’s father but he must be in the other room with the throng of friends and relatives. We chat some more about mostly nothing, just passing the time until we can leave. And that’s when she mentions that she’s a single mom.

Something connects, and I look closer at the little boy.

Ten or so minutes go by, and my sister and mother and I have managed to make it across the room to a quiet corner, and that’s when I whisper to my mother what I’ve wanted to ask, “Is she the one? The one you told me about with the husband who…” She nods before I can finish the sentence.

It was 2007, and my mother and I were enjoying a visit out on the screen porch when talk got around, as it always did that summer, as to the possibility of a casino in Middleboro. “Those places are no good,” my mother said. And then she told me a story.

It was the story of someone she knew – a grand-niece or a daughter of a friend, something like that – someone who wanted very much to have a baby. She and her husband had tried for years to get pregnant, finally, but successfully attempting IVF. The procedure had been expensive. They got behind financially. Way behind. The woman, now pregnant, gave her husband the cash to pay some bills one morning. But while she was at work, he drove to a Rhode Island casino, thinking that maybe he could take that bill money and turn it into more bill money – and in the process lost it all. When he returned home, he realized he couldn’t pay the bills – or face his wife – and took his own life. He was laid to rest in a Middleboro cemetery. His baby boy was born several months later.

"Those places are no good," my mother repeated.

It had been a year since I’d heard that story. Sometimes I wondered if it were even real. Still, I’d often think about that little boy whose face I’d never seen, whose name I didn’t know.

If casino gambling comes to Massachusetts, none of us will see the face or know the name of every child left without a parent, or neglected by one, or abused by one.

But they’ll be there. The ones that get left off the balance sheet. The collateral damage. The folks who form what we have politely and ambiguously come to call '‘social costs'.

Except that now they’ll live in other towns in Massachusetts, places further north and east and west of Middleboro where, as of now, it takes too long for most people to drive to a casino to lose the bill money in less than a day.

I’m reminded of the map, the one with a circle around each of the three proposed Massachusetts casinos. Every circle represents a radius of 50 miles, and all together they encompass 319 cities and towns. All three of them overlap. The circles illustrate the National Gambling Impact Study Commission’s suggestion that the number of problem and addicted gamblers doubles within 50 miles of a new casino. A ring of fire.

"I fell in to a burning ring of fire. I went down,down,down, and the flames went higher."
I remember a man, when the map was first published, ridiculing it loudly to everyone who’d listen, pointing out that Middleboro is less than 50 miles from any Rhode Island casino, and insisting that they’d had no impact here.

Not for him.

His son still has a dad to teach him how to tie his shoes, and ride a bike, and throw a baseball.

"It’s all about choice," they like to say. "It's my choice, if I want to gamble my money or not."

But where’s that baby’s choice? I think his choice would be to grow up with a dad.

I think his choice would be to grow up in a world that didn’t make it so easy for his Dad to lose hope. That didn’t use people’s weaknesses to balance budget shortfalls. But he doesn’t get a vote.

How many times have I heard it, "we already have gambling addiction here…"? I wonder if they said that when they built the first casino outside of Las Vegas. “We already have the problems, we might as well get the revenue.” That’s what they probably said.

And then someone looked over at that casino and said the same thing. And so another casino got built. And now, when people say that there’s already gambling addiction where they live, it’s because of that last casino that went up. The one not terribly far to drive to.

Because building a new casino never just ‘recaptures’ problem gamblers. It creates them.

With every new casino we light another another ring of fire.

In Iowa, before they built casinos, 1.7% of the population were problem gamblers. Three and a half years later, that figure had more than tripled to 5.4%. In New York, the percentage of people who reported having had a gambling problem increased from 4.2% to 7.3% in the first decade of gambling expansion. In Gulfport, Mississippi, suicides increased by 213 percent in the first two years after casinos were built, while in nearby Biloxi, suicide attempts jumped by 1,000 percent in the first year alone.

People will tell you it’s all about jobs, that with three casinos and a slot parlor there’s the potential to create anywhere from 8,000 to 16,000 jobs. But how does that truly compare with creating an additional 300,000 people in Massachusetts who’ll live along a state-sponsored spectrum that ranges from a broken home on one end to a funeral on the other?

In 2010 a state senator from Cape Cod stood during the casino debate and told the story about how, more than once, his father had abandoned him and his siblings on a local beach while he went to the track. This all probably happened more than forty years ago, but the memory of watching the sun go down and wondering how he was going to get home and what he was going to eat still caused the the senator’s voice to crack as he fought back tears. Like ripples on water, a single problem gambler can create a wake of financial hardship and emotional devastation that can last for decades, if not forever.

Had there been no casino in Rhode Island, that baby’s father might have driven to a Connecticut casino to find a reason to end his life. But he might not have. It’s a long round trip to take while your wife’s at work. But if there were no New England casinos, he’d be alive right now.

He wouldn’t be watching casino commercials every day on TV or listening to them on the radio. Commercials that make casinos seem as innocuous as Disneyland, and as brimming with possibilities as a golden ticket to Wonka World. He wouldn’t have had such an easy excuse to lose the bill money and to feel like he’d failed his family. He’d be here showing off his beautiful baby boy to all the relatives.

"All that money’s just going across the border," they tell us.

I look across the room at the baby and I think, you know what? Let it go…

My Aunt Ginny comes over to say hello, and says she can’t believe it’s really me. I only recognize her from old photographs but, according to family lore, she was the one who took care of me when I was very young and my mother had to work.

Aunt Ginny, whose gravity-defying hair would make any iconic country western singer proud, left Massachusetts for Oklahoma back in the 70's. I have no memory of her, but love her instantly. She is funny and cheerful and I’m grateful to have her sitting with us, taking our minds off the wake and the baby and casinos.

While we’re talking, a woman with a breathing tube in her throat stops by and says hello to my mother, who introduces us. She registers a flash of recognition, and an eyebrow is arched.

"So," she says, "You’re the daughter who’s against the casino."

She says this as if she actually means, "So, you’re the daughter who recently escaped from a mental institution."

Somehow, even at a wake, these people manage to find me.

Aunt Ginny laughs. “What’s the matter with casinos?” she asks, "I love the casino! I’ve got one right down the end of my street. I’ve won big a few times there, too."

My mother leans in and whispers in my ear, "Ask her how much she’s lost…"

But there’s no need. Aunt Ginny is obviously a woman of modest means.

I get up to leave. I have a board meeting to attend in Lakeville that evening. Probably another shouting match. I’m tired, I’d rather go home, or out to a restaurant with my mother and sister and Aunt Ginny.

Instead we gather in the hall for hugs and goodbyes, and agree that wouldn’t it be nicer to get together somewhere besides funerals and wakes.

Within the year my Aunt Ginny will be dead, unable to afford health insurance, and living right down the street from a casino.

But that evening her laughter was still with me as I lingered on the side street, decompressing in the quiet sanctuary of my car, safe for now. I allow the wake and the family and the lady with the breathing tube to wash away. All that’s left is the little boy, who’s real now. A little boy with a sweet smile, a full head of hair and his father’s eyes.

If only his father’s eyes could see them.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Not Penn Nationals First Rodeo

Fun Fact: Did you know that Penn National once spent $38M to defeat a ballot initiative in Ohio that would have forced it to compete with another casino company? 

Is that what we really want here in Massachusetts?