Cindi Ross Scoppe

A casino-funded road fix? Don’t bet on it

SC gambling: It own’t be glamorous, it won’t be pretty, and it won’t fix our roads.
SC gambling: It own’t be glamorous, it won’t be pretty, and it won’t fix our roads. AP

SENATE Democrats’ plan to provide free technical-college educations for all high school graduates who want them had a very familiar ring.

The year was 2000, and Democrats still controlled the state Senate, and the governor’s office, and they not only proposed but promised those free technical college educations — if we went along with their larger plan. And we did. We — by which I mean those of you in the majority on the issue — voted to allow the state of South Carolina to create a lottery. But the Democrats didn’t deliver on the free technical-college educations.

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Senate Democrats want to make technical college free for SC residents

SC residents favor legalizing casinos

Editorial: Suckers’ bet leaves us all in the red

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They also promised that through the magic of state-sponsored gambling, our public schools would get a transformative infusion of technology funding, and smart kids would get free four-year college educations, and poor kids who weren’t that smart would get needs-based scholarships, and teachers would get free master’s degrees and … well, it’s hard to remember all the promises.

Seventeen years later, we do have large scholarships for smart kids — along with much higher tuition costs, since the Legislature simultaneously slashed funding to colleges. And we do have lottery money for school technology — and the tax dollars we used to spend on that have been diverted to non-education expenditures. And on and on. Yes, lottery money supports many of the promised programs — although not the free technical-college education, and in other cases not in the quantity we were promised, and often simply replacing tax dollars that used to pay for those programs.

My point isn’t that the politicians didn’t keep their promise — no one can guarantee what a Legislature that hasn’t even been elected yet will or will not do, and we should never believe promises based on the premise that anyone can. My point is that the politicians couldn’t keep their promise. They couldn’t keep their promise because it was too big. They couldn’t keep their promise because gambling never delivers what it promises.

We need to remember why Senate Democrats in 2017 are advocating a program that Democrats promised us in 2000 as we consider one of the 2017 priorities for House Democrats: legalizing casino gambling.

House Democratic Leader Todd Rutherford promises casinos would send “hundreds of millions” of tax dollars to our roads each year, which is enough to make voters who haven’t given it much thought think it’s a great idea.

There are a lot of reasons it’s not a great idea, but let’s set aside the fact that there are no serious revenue projections and that revenue projections for new gambling enterprises are notoriously unreliable. Let’s set aside the fact that even if gambling could generate “hundreds of millions” of tax dollars every year, that wouldn’t cover our billion-dollar-a-year road repair needs, as most people who like the idea almost certainly believe it would. Let’s even set aside the near certainty of corruption and the fact that H.3102 would ask voters to amend the state constitution to allow pretty much any sort of gambling the Legislature decides to allow — including video gambling.

The danger of video gambling isn’t the gambling

Set all of that aside, and you’re still left with the most dangerous thing about legalizing gambling: It changes the way we think and the way lawmakers think and the way they spend our money.

Before the lottery, we understood that whatever the state spent to run public schools and colleges had to come from taxpayers and, in the case of college, students. The lottery taught us that we didn’t have to pay for education — that the suckers who gamble would pay for it instead. Most people believed this because they have no concept of how much money it takes to run the schools and colleges or how little the lottery generates.

Most lawmakers — well, a lot of them — seem to have no concept of such things either. So lawmakers weren’t willing to appropriate enough tax revenue to the schools, since they get all that lottery money.

Today colleges receive 23 percent less state funding than they did in 2000, public schools receive just 80 cents for every dollar state law requires per pupil, and more than two years after the state Supreme Court ordered the state to provide a decent education to all children, the Legislature still hasn’t done the difficult job of fixing our laws or even the (relatively) easy job of providing adequate funding in the poorest districts.

If you think South Carolina’s lottery experience was an anomaly, consider what’s happened in Maryland — the state S.C. casino supporters hold up as a model. There, gambling revenue by law goes to the schools, and The State’s Avery Wilkes reported last month that “As new revenues have come in from casinos for schools, Maryland officials instead have redirected general fund money that ordinarily would have been spent on education to other purposes.”

If your goal is to provide more money to repair and expand our roads, then the last thing you want to do is legalize more gambling. But if you want addiction and political corruption and maybe even gaudy little casinos dotting nearly every street corner and flashing neon lights beckoning from the back of every convenience store, then this is definitely the way to go.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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