Get facts before taking a gamble
Before deciding on a pair of gambling-related ballot measures in November, Oregon voters must look long and hard at the potential consequences of opening the door to a Las Vegas-style casino just east of Portland in Wood Village.
Promoters of the casino, who have completed what appears to be a successful signature-gathering campaign for two initiatives to make the casino a reality, will make many promises over the next few months to win voter approval for their proposal. And for every promise offered in support of the casino, voters can be assured there will be a counter argument. In turn, this is likely to be one of the most expensive initiative campaigns in Oregon's history, with Nevada gambling interests and a Canadian investment company lined up on the pro side, and the collective clout of Oregon's Indian tribes and the state's restaurateurs aggressively opposing the measures.
We are extremely skeptical that Oregon has anything to gain from approving a privately run casino that would have more gaming devices than any casino in Nevada and would operate in the midst of a metropolitan area.
This issue, however, should not be decided on conjecture or overt campaigning. To determine if there's merit to this proposal, Oregonians must weigh the potential positives - new jobs and the promise of new public revenue - against the known negatives - which include myriad social consequences.
Is there a net gain?
A primary topic for study is the financial question of whether the casino actually will produce any new gambling revenue for the state, or if the facility will simply siphon off Oregon State Lottery dollars that are directed by the state's Constitution to education, economic development, parks and environmental enhancements.
It is already known that the casino measures would share proceeds differently than the lottery does - giving a large chunk to counties and cities, for example. That means Oregon's school districts, in particular, might get less money with the casino than without it.
A study by ECONorthwest - paid for by Oregon tribes - concludes that most of the public money generated by the casino would come at the expense of nearby lottery retailers. The casino's backers dispute the study's conclusions, as you would expect. And they no doubt will produce a contradicting study of their own.
But the real test here isn't whether the two sides are capable of funding studies to their advantage. In a campaign that could approach $20 million in spending, there will be no shortage of messaging. What's important, however, is that voters be given objective information on which to cast their ballots.
For example, we think voters would want to know specifically how the proposed casino would affect the grants, loans and bond funding that the Oregon State Lottery provides local schools, cities and counties. Just what impact would the casino have on the $160 million distributed by the lottery in the past two years in Multnomah County, the $101 million directed throughout Washington County or the $71 million shared in Clackamas County?
Measure the social costs
A fiscal impact statement that the state is required to perform for all ballot measures may answer some questions. But a broader concern also cries out for unbiased evaluation.
A casino in a metropolitan area likely will have undesirable social consequences: more gambling addiction, more family problems, more people embezzling money to cover their gambling losses and more bankruptcies. Measuring such costs is difficult, but they need to be quantified and compared to the plus side of the casino ledger.
Entities that ought to be involved in such an investigation include Multnomah County, the state's university system, the Portland City Club and the Portland Business Alliance.
The coming campaign will produce a great deal of heat, but what's needed most are disciplined studies that go beyond the surface and investigate whether this proposal is anything more than a reckless gamble.