As an educator, I certainly have to be in favor of more money for education.
As a Prince Georges County homeowner, I certainly have to be in favor of any plan that has the potential to improve property values in my neighborhood by improving our local public schools.
Heck, if they build a casino at National Harbor, can upscale retail for PG be far behind? (I'm talking to you, Nordstrom!)
So why does the thought of a casino in Prince Georges County make me uneasy?
On the face of it, the famous "Question 7" on the Maryland ballot seems fairly innocuous:
Do you favor the expansion of commercial gaming in the State of Maryland for the primary purpose of raising revenue for education to authorize video lottery operation licensees to operate "table games" as defined by law; to increase from 15,000 to 16,500 the maximum number of video lottery terminals that may be operated in the State; and to increase from 5 to 6 the maximum number of video lottery operation licenses that may be awarded in the State and allow a video lottery facility to operate in Prince George's County?
If the fight over this referendum had not become "the most expensive political battle in Maryland history" according to i=one news source, I might not have thought much about it. But Question 7 is inescapable: television advertisements for and against the question flood my television screen each night, even seeming to edge out the televised noise from the Obama/Romney/Kaine/Allen campaigns.
So, yes, guys, you have my attention! You shoulda been more careful.
In one ad, sincere teachers tell me that voting "yes" will give them much-needed school supplies for their pupils. (My goodness, please give them more pencils!) In another ad, sincere teachers tell me that voting "no" will make sure that millions of dollars don't go into lining the pockets of big gaming interests. (But isn't capitalism our way of life?)
What most people may not realize is that the ads on both sides of the issue are funded by big gambling interests -- those that want to get a stake in the Maryland market, and those already-established gaming operators that want to keep competitors out.
None of the ads address my real concern that the gambling referendum reflects fundamentally skewed social and political values, potentially harming people by encouraging gambling among populations that cannot really afford to throw money away while also sending the message that educational improvements are not important enough to fund directly through the state budget.
Gambling may well be a pleasant form of entertainment for some people, within reason. I confess that I don't really understand why people would put their hard-earned money at such grave risk, but then again, I didn't understand the rush to buy Facebook stock, either. But, heck, it's a free country, and if people want to take their money to the river and see it wash away, that's their business.
On the other hand, gambling is impossibly seductive for many people who should never go near a lottery ticket, let alone slots or cards. Prince Georges County still has one of the highest poverty rates in the Washington region, and for all of the development in some parts of the county, too many neighborhoods still count their 7-Eleven as the major shopping center. Sometimes I'll be at my local convenience store and see people putting down $20 or more for lottery tickets and I wonder what their kids had for dinner. Some people will tell me to mind my own business, and they're right, but I can still wonder about these questions.
Beyond the problem of state-sponsored gambling, however, is the very serious problem of state-sponsored hypocrisy on education. If improving public education in the State of Maryland is as important as our political leaders claim, shouldn't education have pride of place in the state budget? Why would we allow something as important as education funding be dependent on gamblers and their enablers?
Gambling on the hope of improving public schools through slots reveals deeply disordered public priorities. In the Washington region, while the D.C. Public Schools have had all of the media attention, the Prince Georges Public Schools have churned superintendents while sustaining chronic underachievement in too many of the schools. Will gambling at National Harbor contribute to a turn-around in our schools? Unlikely. While supporters claim that the initiative will bring more revenue to support education, opponents point out that the money might simply be used as a substitute for state monies.
Would our state leaders be willing to substitute the public payroll as the objective for the gambling revenue? Or the state capital improvement budget? Why does the education budget have to be the pawn in this game?
Supporters of the initiative say that a casino at National Harbor will keep millions of dollars currently spent at West Virginia casinos in Maryland, as well as create jobs and, therefore, improve the economic conditions of residents and communities in Prince Georges County. Fair enough, but I wonder how much of the real economic windfall will actually stay in the county. The primary beneficiaries will be the owners from Las Vegas.
I'm not opposed to the free enterprise of MGM or Penn National Gaming or any of the other casino operators who are duking it out to preserve their market share. Expanding gambling in Maryland might be just fine from a free market point of view. People can certainly vote their choice and we'll live with the results.
But let's call out the cynical deception at the heart of the gambling ads that uses education as the foil to get voters to approve the referendum. We should never see advertisements using teachers -- and, by inference, the children who are their pupils -- as the shields protecting the real financial interests behind the gambit of education funding.
Gambling is not about education; it's about profits for casino owners. The house never loses.