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IS LIFE A GAMBLE?

Public Opinion Court Focus Group Analysis

Charles L. Kennedy
Senior Instructor
Political Science
Penn State York
clk8@psu.edu
January, 2007

At its first Public Opinion Court focus group of 2007, the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion focused on the question, "Is Life a Gamble?"  The Court was funded by a grant from the Templeton Foundation.  Sixteen citizens of south central Pennsylvania assembled at the PMA building in Harrisburg for three hours on January 20.  The sixteen citizens first took an entrance survey on the issue of legalization of gambling.  They listened to presentations both pro and con on the issue and participated in a question and answer session with the speakers.  They then discussed, debated, and argued various aspects of the issue after the speakers departed.  The event concluded with the focus group members taking an exit survey.

The members of the focus group are not major players in the venues of casino gambling.  Judging by their response to the following questions, they could best be described as occasional gamblers.

In describing your own involvement in legal gambling activities, would you say you gamble FREQUENTLY, NOT VERY OFTEN OR NEVER?

ENTRY

Frequently

 6%

Sometimes

19%

Not Very Often

63%

Never

6%

Refused/No Opinion

6%

How often have you visited an out-of-state casino in the past year?

ENTRY

Zero

56%

1-5 Times

44%

6-10 Times

0%

11-15 Times

0%

16-20 Times

0%

More than 20 Times

0%

Refused/No Opinion

0%

As Pennsylvania prepares to move into the big leagues as a major slot machines player, the Lincoln Institute decided to have one of its focus groups focus on the pros and cons of this issue.  The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board has approved eleven applications over the past four months for slots parlors to operate as many as 3,000 slot machines each.  The Board acted under the 2004 state law authorizing the operation of up to 61,000 slot machines at 14 sites in the Keystone State.  It has been estimated that in the state of Pennsylvania, the bulk of the money will go to the reduction of property taxes with a one billion dollar goal set by Governor Ed Rendell.

Of course there has been considerable discussion and debate, both pro and con on the issue.  The goal of the focus group was to explore and examine the pros and the cons of the issue.

THE PROS

The first speaker was Mark Singel of the Winter Group.  He spoke in favor of slot machine gambling.  He emphasized the reality of the situation, Pennsylvanians are gambling and citizens are taking their money to other states to gamble.  It is the responsibility of state government to take advantage of the situation.  He also emphasized that it was limited to four-five venues throughout the state (without expansion to table games) and there were no river boat casinos.

He brought up the point that gambling already exists and benefits Pennsylvania.  He cited the example of the state lottery.  He stated that slots can similarly benefit Pennsylvania with property tax deduction.  On the issue of Pennsylvania's valued land, the venue in cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would be beneficial to the local economics.

Singel particularly emphasized the slots would lead to a dramatic expansion of the economy.  The casinos would lead to good jobs, which would cause a ripple effect through the entire economy.  Additionally, there would be an increase in tax revenue for Pennsylvania.

Pro-Casino Speaker – Discussion

During the Q&A session, the following points were developed:

- Slot machine tax revenue will benefit seniors by readjusting property tax.  This is helpful to people with land but no income. 

- Governor Rendell wanted the slots to be in places that were heavily regulated, such as Penn National gaming.  This helped save the horse industry in PA. 

- Originally 6 venues in PA were proposed; now legislators are proposing 14 venues.  However, Gettysburg voted to preserve history and not allow casinos in the area. 

- Only slot machines would be added, not tables, to horse racing venues.  Although, there is word that legislators are already considering allowing tables. 

- Many believe that slot machines are not enough to keep Pennsylvanians from going to Atlantic City and other out of state casino's in the long run.  This may lead to an aggressive gaming lobby in PA.

THE CONS

Tom Shaheen of the PA Family Institute spoke against legalized gambling.  He reviewed the history of the bill.

- Slots were legalized with Act 71 on July 4, 2004.  The way it was passed is significant.  It happened in the wee hours of the morning.  There have been attempts since 1990 to legalize gambling, but it did not work until Act 71.  It began as a 4-page bill for background checks, and now it is a 140-pg. bill which allows for 14 venues.

- Those who support this all want a slice of the pie and they hired many lobbyists to get the bill passed.  The group included video poker, riverboats, Penn National and the race tracks.

- Governor Ridge said in his farewell address that there will always be many losers with gambling.  In two terms of Governor Ridge and two terms of Governor Casey, we kept gambling out.  Ridge said there would be no bill without a public referendum.

- There has been a lot of public debate, but enough powerful people wanted slots that they could change the vote.  They put a lot of money into it.  Governor Ridge said there should not be more than 1,500 machines and only in off-track wagering venues.  Every lobbying firm that was involved benefited.  We discovered, even without a good disclosure law, that two million dollars in campaign contributions went to Rendell for gambling interests.

He gave an example that this is not good government:

- Experts at UNLV say PA is making a mistake.  In 1990 river boat gambling was instituted in Davenport, Iowa.  Credit counselors saw the before and after results.  Illinois wanted casinos and gambling grew, even with the promise of limited gambling.

- Limits lasted less than a year in Illinois.

 * The Governor was bribed.

 * Lobbyists fought against the limits.

 * They promised to keep it at docks.  Companies went so far as to dig a pond and float a casino on it, just to get around the rule.

Other examples he cited included:

- Crime

- Business costs

- Unemployment costs

- Suicide

- Mental illness

- Family break ups

In Detroit they have added casinos—much more comparable to Philadelphia or Pittsburgh.  Two-thirds of all Detroit gamblers are Detroit residents.  Before they had casinos they went out of state as in PA.  Addiction rates in Detroit skyrocketed with casinos.  People will still gamble in Atlantic City and other locations.  The 14 new venues will just add new gamblers.  We just don't want new gamblers.

He cited several individual examples:

- A young man, who was playing ball at Grove City, went to Mountaineer Park to play the slots.  He used his dad's name and racked up $20,000 in credit card debt.

- A Penn grad student's mother was a 6th grade teacher in a state where gambling money goes to education.  She had so much gambling debt that she committed suicide.  She shot herself in the classroom, where her students found her the next day.

- A Lancaster County woman is now a widow.  Her husband, a 44-year-old bankruptcy attorney, lost over one million dollars in Atlantic City and Dover, Delaware.

He stated, "The addiction to gambling goes unseen until it is too late.  Businesses often go under.  These stories show the problem better than the statistics."  He concluded, "These are not the people, these are not the venues, and these are not the problems the people in PA want in their neighborhood."

Anti-Casino Speaker – Discussion

The following points were developed during the Q&A session:

- Regarding addiction services, there is a very small amount of addiction service available to gambling addicts in casinos.

- A study by Valerie Lorenz claims that 3-5% of the adult population is addicted to gambling, and a percentage of those addicted are "problem gamblers."  Also, some become pathological gamblers and cannot stop.  This somehow leads to drug and alcohol addictions as well.

- There are no requirements for casinos to recognize addicts, or offer them help. They are not required to cut them off, as a bartender would.

- The speaker had little to say regarding online gambling.

Discussion Group Decisions

The group had a free-flowing discussion on the following issues:

Town deterioration - It was brought up that Atlantic City, away from the casinos, is a disaster.  One woman said away from the casinos is "slums and depressing."  Majority of group agreed.  A rebuttal stated, "The casinos are not to blame but governments.  Not enough funds going to fix the city."  Another woman said cities all over have that feel now not just cities with casinos, i.e., Harrisburg and Lebanon.  Another woman brought up the example of a good gambling venue, Off Track Betting (in York), saying there is nothing wrong with that area.

Casinos take away from towns traditional feel – In Blackhawk, Colorado, for example, one woman said the casino took away from the "old west" feel of the town; worried about taking away specific feel from PA cities.

Communities can't afford problems casinos cause, like traffic and crime – Many people shared the concern of these venues giving generous amounts of money to the community for a variety of issues.

Private ownership of slot machines – One man suggested Mom and Pop shops rather than government run venues.  The problem – state would not get enough revenue through this set up.

Lack of confidence in government (main concern in group) – Everyone had very little trust that revenue from slots will reach the citizens to benefit them by lower taxes. Rebuttal was that the lottery succeeds in helping senior citizens in multiple ways (pharmaceuticals, Medi-Care, Colt system) through government.

Impact slots have on lottery revenue – It would be negligible.  Group consensus that there are two different types of gambling (impulse and destination); too different to have effect on lottery's revenues.

Financial impact on families – Slots would have impact on families with addicts.  People who are addicted to gambling are already addicted and will drive out of state to do it.  Not many new gamblers will arise.  Group agreed that addicts money should be circulated through PA economy or slot machines rather than out of state.

Crime – Some members of the group were concerned that casinos may bring more organized crime into PA, but others in the group felt that the crime is already there and casinos would not contribute to the crime rate.

Tax reduction – The group felt that the reduction in taxes would only be short term.  This was backed up by the theory that once more money was available, schools would demand more.

Money to communities – There was much concern about whether any of the money would actually be going to the community.

Confidence in leaders – No one in the room had faith in PA leaders to do what is right.  Newspapers are not informative enough.  Networks are worse than the newspapers.

Location – A lot of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) is occurring regarding the casino issue.

FOCUS GROUP RESULTS

- The legalization of gambling activities was approved by 88% of the group.  In addition to slot machines, this included table gambling and other types of casino gambling.

- The promise of property tax reduction was not a key factor in the support of the group—only 13% indicated this was a strong influence on their decision.

- The group was not optimistic in expecting much reduction in property taxes.  Only 6% expected the tax to be totally eliminated or reduced considerably.  However, 88% expected either no reduction or somewhat reduced.

- By a vote of 63%-6% of the group indicated they would still support legalized gambling even if they received no reduction in property taxes.

- The group does not expect to see a significant increase in crime and social problems due to more convenient gambling activities; however, 56% expect a slight increase.

- By 63%-13%, the group expects the economic benefits will outweigh the potential increase in crime and social benefits.  Twenty-five percent were undecided on this question.

- On the question of whether the slot machines would improve or harm the communities in which they are located 75% expected negligible impact.  This was an increase from 50% in the entrance survey.

- Personally, 88% of the group expected their personal gambling habits to remain about the same with the advent of casino gambling.

- On a cautionary note for Governor Rendell and the legislative leaders, 76% felt the performance of the PA Gaming Control Board has caused them to be less supportive of slot machine gambling.

COMPOSITION OF THE FOCUS GROUP

What is your age group?

18-30

38%

30-40

56%

40-50

 0%

50-65

 0%

Over 65

6%

Are you a:

Republican

19%

Democrat

19%

Independent

13%

Not registered to vote

31%

No answer

19%

Do you consider yourself to be a:

Conservative

19%

Moderate

63%

Liberal

19%

What is the highest level of education you have completed?

Secondary Education

 0%

High School

31%

Post-Secondary Certificate

13%

Four-Year Degree

38%

Graduate Degree

19%

In what category would you place your income for the past year? 

Under $20,000

13%

$20,000-$30,000

25%

$30,000-$50,000

13%

$50,000-$75,000

25%

$75,000-$100,000

19%

Over $100,000

 0%

No answer

 6%

(Charles L. Kennedy is a Senior Instructor of Political Science at Penn State York.

 


Taking the Pulse of Pennsylvania