Monday, February 16, 2004

Place Your Bets
In addition to helping crown John Kerry tomorrow, voters in Dane County, where I live, will vote on whether to authorize the conversion of the DeJope bingo hall on Madison's east side into a full-blown casino. The bingo hall is owned by the Ho Chunk tribe, which operates an enormous casino about 40 minutes north of Madison near Wisconsin Dells, as well as two others in northern Wisconsin. Just after taking office last year, Governor Jim Doyle, a Democrat, unilaterally negotiated new gaming contracts with the state's Indian tribes, which would permit an expansion of gambling in the state in exchange for more revenue from the tribes. Republicans had kittens over the negotiations--because the Ho Chunk were big contributors to the Doyle campaign and as we know, Republicans are categorically opposed to granting favors to campaign contributors--but the agreements went forward, paving the way for new Madison casino.

The Ho Chunk are not asking voters to approve a new casino, by the way. The word "casino" rarely appears in any vote-yes publicity. Instead, we're urged to "vote yes on the DeJope revenue sharing agreements," which is as ornate a euphemism as you're ever likely to encounter in politics. The arguments for voting yes are the usual pro-casino arguments: more revenue for city and county government, and more jobs not just in the casino but in the new businesses that will spring up nearby. The arguments about job creation and economic development seem like common sense, but as is often the case with simple-sounding arguments, they ain't so simple. It's possible that the jobs created by the casino may be balanced by the loss of jobs elsewhere in Madison's entertainment industry. Theater and nightclub owners are especially concerned--casinos often bring national acts into their theaters at a loss, knowing they'll make up the difference in the casino. And as for new business creation, casinos are generally self-contained, with restaurants and hotels on-site, and don't necessarily spark new construction. The giant Ho Chunk complex near the Dells sits out in the middle of nowhere with practically nothing else around it save for a gas station or two. (The local innkeeper's association opposes the casino.) And while the Ho Chunk tout the cash windfall--at least $91 million to the city and county in the first 13 years of the agreement--casino opponents note that new expenses will swiftly offset that amount--such as additional public expenditures made necessary by increases in problem gambling and crime. The social costs of the casino have been highly debated, with each side producing academic studies to buttress its position. The county DA is opposed to the casino on the basis of crime and problem gambling. On the other hand, the county deputy sheriff's association supports it.

Madison's newspapers have editorialized about as expected. The Wisconsin State Journal's vote-yes editorial was shockingly cavalier about the likelihood of increased social costs, and derided the opponents as over-emotional bluenoses--which was odd coming from a paper that has its own mile-wide bluenose streak, and has traditionally opposed gambling. The Capital Times took a more measured tone in urging a no vote. In addition, casino opponents have the support of both the current mayor of Madison, Dave Cieslewicz, high-profile ex-mayor Paul Soglin, and a majority of the members of the County Board.

I can't find any polling on the issue, but the Political Stock Report from WisOpinion.com says the issue is tight (scroll down), guessing that young voters turning out for the presidential primary will vote for it, and also that "many liberals will go along because they'll feel guilty about America's former treatment of Native Americans." (Yup, that's Madison for you.) My guess is that the casino will pass, and by quite a bit. I'm voting against it. I'm not a gambler, to begin with--I don't enjoy it, and don't enjoy watching other people do it. The arguments about increased social cost are persuasive to me. And I remember when casino gambling was instituted in Iowa, and how the casinos sucked entertainment dollars and attention from other venues. I'd hate to see Madison's unique character, particularly its downtown, which is already suffering, further diminished by the generic glitz of a casino out by the interstate.

Too little, too late: John Edwards has picked up high-profile endorsements from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Capital Times and Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz, and I have to confess I might vote for him if the race were close. But it's not--the latest Zogby poll has Kerry 47, Dean 23, Edwards 20. John Zogby makes an interesting (though awkwardly worded and punctuated) observation: "Dean is polling very well among young people around Madison. It is hard to see Dean going on from here however, he is polling well enough to get delegates and it's interesting to see that Edwards and Dean together suggest a substantial non-Kerry vote. What would happen if Kerry were to face just one opponent? Kerry has the highest favorable ratings and is given by far and away, the best shot at defeating President Bush. Again, it's all about electability."

We'd better be right about that electability thing, folks . . . .

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