In a recent Civil Beat editorial, Lowell Kalapa asked the question, “Can Legalized Gambling Fill Hawaii’s Budget Hole?” and then proceeded to argue against it.
The real answer to his question is: “Yes it Can!” Hawaii is the only American state outside of Utah that prohibits gaming. There are 311 million people in the other states and including Hawaii, but excluding Utah, 99.6% of them, live in states that permit gambling, and all of the residents of Utah have hundreds of casinos within easy driving distance of the borders of their state.
What we have here in Hawaii, instead of legal gaming, is a large, uncontrollable, criminal gambling enterprise that involves all sorts of bad elements — including, according to the news reports, rogue police officers. Estimates of the size of our homegrown, illegal, gambling operations range all the way up to one billion dollars per year, and history has shown that Prohibition creates crime, not lessens it. Legalizing gambling will have the same effect that legalizing alcohol had. It will lessen, or even end, that crime. How much “bathtub gin” do you think is made and sold here? None. But there is plenty of illegal gambling and none of it is taxed. If it were taxed, we in Hawaii would have about $50 million in tax revenue added annually.
But what about other, legal, gambling? Hawaii residents also spend about a billion dollars a year on that. Hawaii residents take a total of about 500,000 total trips to Las Vegas, and other gambling destinations each year with many of our citizens taking multiple trips per year. Boyd Gaming alone reported that it earns about $600,000,000 from Hawaii visitors each year. That means that Hawaii is contributing about one billion dollars to the economy of “neighboring” Nevada each year.
Economists like Mr. Kalapa tell us that each dollar spent in a local economy generates about 3.5 times as much, via what they call “the multiplier effect.” That is, the more money that is flying around in an economy, the more money it generates. The billion dollars that Hawaii residents are “contributing” to Nevada, adds about about $3.5 billion each year to their economy and takes from our own. We get nothing. No wonder they love us in Nevada!
All, or virtually all, of our mainland tourists come from states that already have casinos or other forms of gambling, and many of them favor our having one also. After all, there is virtually nothing for tourists to do after dark in Waikiki. No movie theaters. Almost no major entertainment venues. The Waikiki Improvement Association did some polling of our Asian visitors recently, and found that nearly 80% of Japanese, South Korean, and Chinese visitors would appreciate having a casino as an entertainment option in Waikiki.
The bill we had introduced in the legislature last year calls for limited gaming. One stand alone casino, only. All entities that would bid on that single license would have to ante up a $1 million, non-refundable fee, just to bid. The winning bidder would have to pay a $150 million “impact fee” to the state, and the casino itself would be subject to a General Excise Tax of 15%, a tax equal to more than three times the tax paid by all other tax payers in Hawaii. The economic modeling that we did indicates that the single, stand alone, casino would employ 3,660 directly, and produce another 5,717 jobs off-site, increasing the number of total jobs for Hawaii workers by 9,377.
Casinos are very labor intensive. The gross wages per year for those new jobs would amount to an aggregate of nearly $533 million in new money to the local economy. It is expected that the increased taxes from gaming fees, income taxes from employee wages, and from the ripple effect of new vendor jobs, etc., and from the General Excise taxes, will generate an added $86.3 million each year. None of this includes the investment costs for construction and etc. which are estimated to be well in excess of $300 million.
Ah, but what about the “social costs?” The emotional attacks that legalizing gambling will create crime, increase personal bankruptcy, and so on, are always a “hot button” item here in Hawaii. However, the facts in the rest of the country don’t bear them out. Both sides in the casino debate cite various academic studies in their interests, but the only source on that issue that ought to count is the Congressional National Gambling Impact Study Commission, and in its official study of those questions, it found that legalizing gambling has no significant effect on crime, personal bankruptcy, etc., either way. And the facts bear that out among the more than 307 million Americans in 49 states that have already ended prohibition of gambling.
So, to answer Mr. Kalapa’s question, “Can Legalized Gambling Fill Hawaii’s Budget Hole?” The answer is yes, it undoubtedly can help. No single “silver bullet” exists that will solve all of Hawaii’s need to have sufficient income forever. But it goes without saying, that Hawaii will need a wider variety of sources of income than we have now and no other industry is beating down the door. Casino gaming is something that ought to be tried.
About the author: John H. Radcliffe has been an active lobbyist at the state and national level for forty years. He has been a legislative advocate for clients in Hawaii for thirty-four of those years. He currently represents more than two dozen local and national entities, including the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly.