- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2004

A not-so-funny thing has happened to proponents who want to establish the first mega-casino in the nation’s capital. A lawsuit filed this week seemingly argues several critical points. Mostly, though, it offers temporary political cover for leaders in City Hall and the business community, who pretend they would rather wait and hear what voters have to say at the polls. The voices of the voters, I wager here and now, would likely say, “Bring it on.”

There are a couple of reasons I think the gambling initiative is a sure bet. For one, the District’s mostly Democraticelectorate rarely rejects a ballot issue, especially ones that create entitlements and liberalize social policy. For another, the likely ballot question on gambling cloaks itself in the usual liberal garb of promising big bucks for city coffers in general and money for schools in particular.

That doesn’t mean the proposed initiative is flawless, and local and federal lawmakers should take note. The proposed “family entertainment complex” would cost an estimated $510 million to develop and would include a 600- to 800-room hotel, a casino with 3,500 slots and retail shops. The casino/hotel would be situated along a so-called gateway corridor, New York Avenue NE, which carries local, commuter and tourist traffic straight into center city. It also carries motorists on their way to the U.S. Capitol. Already clogged around the clock, the same corridor is slated to become home to a new rail station and bus junction, and it is a favored site for a new baseball stadium. It will become impossible to use New York Avenue if a major landmark like a casino is added to that scenario. Yet, no one of any political consequence is discussing a traffic plan, and no one is telling us who would foot the bill for infrastructure changes.

Most important of all is what proponents propose to offer the city and their insistence that they be granted a monopoly on casinos for 10 years. Under the proposed initiative, 25 percent of the net profits from the slots would be set aside for D.C. educational programs and a drug plan for seniors.

Both are bad deals. The 25 percent comes only after the IRS collects its share. City Hall should insist that our share come from the gross revenue of the project, which is a sure bet. If we want a sure thing, then we have to do like the gangsters do, and get our take off the top. Smart Hollywood types do the same, getting their agents to secure contracts that give them more money from gross sales, not net.

If the proponents do not agree, there are other options. Jack Kent Cooke acquiesced to residents’ demands that, in order to build a new house for the Washington Redskins, he had to build, and at his expense, an educational/community center. Abe Pollin, meanwhile, built his own basketball/hockey arena in downtown Washington, and all taxpayers had to kick in were infrastructure costs.

Legal hurdles pose a complete set of other questions. The lawsuit claims, among other things, that the proposed initiative: 1) violates the D.C. Code by weakening oversight of the D.C. Council; and 2) further violates D.C. law by mandating that the city “appropriate funds.” Again, the other troubling aspect of the initiative is its 10-year monopoly on casinos — shutting out businesses large and small.

Gambling is a sure revenue bet, despite the social consequences. State and local coffers are heavily dependent upon lotteries. With no slot machines in Maryland or the District, taxpayers by the busloads leave daily to slip their hard-earned dollars into slots in neighboring West Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey. Pennsylvania lawmakers are quickly moving to open up that state to casinos.

Supporters of the D.C. proposal want to capture hundreds of millions of those traveling dollars. The odds, however, would have better favored their contentious initiative if lobbyists had curried favor with the general public. Instead, they applied the trickle-down theory.

Gambling on gambling can produce but one of four combinations: win-win; win-loss; loss-win; or loss-loss. Legal arguments notwithstanding, the proposed gambling initiative, as it now stands, is rigged as a winner for proponents and a guaranteed loss for the city. If our leaders in City Hall do what we elected them to do, it won’t have to be that way.

My June 4 column published the wrong age for the late Chelsea Cromartie, who was killed by a stray bullet. Chelsea was 8.

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