Sooner or later, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carson City's elected supervisors will have to answer the same difficult question: When it comes to casino gambling, how much is enough? Or to put it another way, How much is too much?
I ask these questions because in my opinion, the rapid proliferation of casinos in both California and Carson City threatens to change the economic and political landscape forever. Because once political leaders decide to go down the road of casino gambling, there's no going back. And I worry about the unintended consequences of such a move. Let me explain my concerns.
In California, Gov. Schwarzenegger is sorely tempted to make a deal with the devil (virtually unregulated Indian gaming), in order to reduce the state's $15 billion budget deficit. Basically, the 61 California Indian tribes who own and operate casinos seek state approval for unlimited gambling; in return, they grudgingly offer a modest increase in the taxes and fees they pay to state and local governments.
If the tribes refuse the deal, Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Bill Lockyer would push an alternative measure that could enable certain racetracks, card clubs and other non-Indian venues to operate slot machines, thereby breaking the tribes' monopoly on Nevada-style gambling.
In other words, California politicians are banking on casino gambling to bail the state out of a major budgetary crisis. The Gaming Revenue Act of 2004 would require tribal casinos to agree to pay 25 percent of slot machine profits to the state. Otherwise, racetracks and card rooms could operate slots if they contributed one-third of their profits to a trust fund to supplement law enforcement, firefighters and abused children. Proponents of the measure need nearly 600,000 voter signatures to put it on the 2004 ballot in November.
Meanwhile, California Indian tribes continue to expand casino gaming despite objections from local citizens. For example, the Miwok Tribe wants to build a hotel-casino at Shingle Springs on U.S. 50 between Cameron Park and Placerville even though residents oppose the project on environmental, traffic and conflict-of-interest grounds. Down south, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians seeks permission for a controversial hotel-casino complex in downtown Palm Springs. And on and on it goes to the detriment of Nevada's long-established and well-regulated legal gambling industry.
The fact that several of California's Indian casinos are operated by Nevada gaming licensees doesn't seem to bother Attorney General Brian Sandoval or the state's gaming control agencies. They have long ignored regulations that require Nevada gaming licensees to operate "in the best interests of the people of the state of Nevada," even though some tribal casinos compete directly with struggling casinos in the Reno/Tahoe area.
Just one example: Station Casinos of Las Vegas rakes in approximately $70 million per year for managing the Thunder Valley Casino on I-80 near Auburn. How many more Northern Nevada casinos will have to close before Sandoval and the gaming agencies force Station Casinos to choose between its California and Nevada operations?
Here in Carson City, slot machines are proliferating like noxious weeds and we're moving toward an unhealthy, gambling-based economy. Everywhere you look, someone is proposing a new slot arcade - not to mention Max Baer Jr.'s hokey Beverly Hillbillies Hotel-Casino project at Southgate Shopping Center - aimed at low-income gamblers.
When I first moved here 40 years ago, casino gaming was under control in the state capital. But now, too many of my fellow seniors are spending their Social Security checks at local casinos. A notable increase in compulsive gambling is a problem that the city, and responsible casino owners, must deal with sooner rather than later.
In my opinion, the Board of Supervisors should grandfather-in the Ormsby House remodeling project and then declare a moratorium on the further expansion of casino gaming in Carson until they can study the economic benefits and social costs of the current gambling boom. Of course Baer and his vocal supporters will scream bloody murder - as he did at the Rotary Club and in the Appeal newsroom following my last anti-hillbillies column - but our elected representatives have a responsibility to defend the best interests of their constituents.
I simply don't think our best interests are served by installing a mini-casino on every street corner. The fact is that Carson, like other Nevada cities, receives relatively little benefit from local gaming operations. In effect, the city is a tax collector for the state of Nevada with the state receiving the lion's share of gambling proceeds. For example, in fiscal 2003 the city collected less than $700,000 in revenues from all local gaming licensees. By contrast, when Wal-Mart was at Southgate, that one store generated more than $1 million per year in municipal sales tax revenue.
Therefore, the old Wal-Mart site is best suited for a national retail outlet that will generate more revenue for the city than all of our local casinos combined. That's why Mayor Ray Masayko and the supervisors should revitalize Carson's economy by promoting a stable retail tax base while rejecting an expansion of gambling as a "quick fix" for the city's revenue problems. Enough already!
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist, has been a legal resident of Carson City since January 1962.