Donna Perry: Gambling on a Jobs Strategy

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Less than four weeks from now, Americans will have decided who will be President and Rhode Islanders will have decided who will represent them in Washington, at the General Assembly, on local councils and school committees, and whether they want to see full-fledged casinos in Newport and at Twin River in Lincoln.

This election season has been a wild ride with high decibel debates ranging from who is truly responsible for the nation’s mind numbing debt to who should be responsible for purchasing a woman’s birth control pills. But perhaps no issue has galvanized the debate and the finger pointing more than the issue over jobs, and more specifically the lack of them. In the days following last week’s game changing debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama, the federal Labor Department’s release of improved employment numbers started its own new debate over whether the numbers were real or perhaps getting a little “cooked” by the now nervous Administration.

But whether they have “helped” the numbers will ultimately end up beside the point. The drop of a few tenths of a percent in a federal data analysis may look good on charts and in national headlines but it doesn’t really matter to the long term unemployed like the roughly 60-thousand Rhode Islanders who remain out of work.

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That’s why the incumbents in the state’s Washington delegation have been more than happy to latch onto a litany of other issues all season to change the conversation from the jobs front. Congressman James Langevin has grown increasingly defensive as energetic challenger Michael Riley has unapologetically questioned whether the well liked Langevin remains an effective voice in Washington as the state’s fiscal condition worsens. Brendan Doherty calls out Ciccilline for preferring to scare seniors rather than own up to Providence lies or talk jobs, and Barry Hinckley points out that lifelong public official Sheldon Whitehouse seems unfamiliar—and uninterested-- in private sector job creation.

Regardless of where you stand, Rhode Islanders owe it to themselves to look long and hard at how –or even if-- their own Washington delegation really grasps the true condition of their home state. Rhode Island is beyond a jobs problem; it has an employment crisis and has been characterized by economic analysts as being caught in what could amount to a “lost decade” of protracted job loss and business sector decline.

So against this bleak backdrop, it’s all the more curious to see that the only job sector growth being predicted this campaign season has little to do with promising new day jobs and has everything to do with a certain type of nightlife. If you believe that grooming younger or not so young unemployed Rhode Islanders for service jobs as waitresses, hostesses, bartenders, or “gaming dealers”, then I guess you could say job opportunities are emerging. The central promise of new jobs is coming not from business growth in a cutting edge industry or the arrival of a vibrant large company into our state, but from a campaign spokesman for glitzed up gambling halls.

The most visible figure on the scene this fall talking jobs is the unelected Twin River Chairman John Taylor, who is pushing the ballot referendums to bring table games and full casino status to Newport Grand and Twin River. Despite evidence around the region and the country that long established casinos have been experiencing serious revenue decline (Foxwoods) and Massachusetts has several casinos going on line that are likely to keep the Bay State visitors to our establishments gambling elsewhere in the near future, Rhode Island seems to have settled on a casino jobs strategy.

In fairness, this fall has also seen notable events (RI Foundation’s MakeItHappen 2-day seminar) to draw attention, focus, and new energy toward examining job sectors, workforce training, and rethinking the state’s promotional approaches. Proposals have also been forwarded for a complete makeover of the state’s economic development apparatus. But the gambling expansion forces, cleverly branding the casino referendums as a “Jobs RI” campaign, have dominated the jobs message and they’ve certainly done their job well, as recent polls show the ballot initiatives are likely to pass. It’s true that the state’s third largest source of revenue brings in close to $300 million to the state and Twin River alone is currently tied to 900 jobs with another 350 expected to come on line with the expansion to a full casino.

Even without dissecting the merits of what those jobs or “careers” really are, there are other troubling realities that should be noted. First off, the revenue produced by these establishments was tied to a profit sharing arrangement with the state that was far more generous than what the Legislature approved for going forward. Secondly, as casino revenues drop, as they have everywhere, the state could find the only true winner will be parent company UTGR, Inc. and the guaranteed take it will extract from the casinos in the years to come even as the state’s take continues shrinking.

The truth is having casino industry jobs serve as a central employment strategy is an approach that may not only quickly run out of luck, experience elsewhere shows it may already be running out of time.

Donna Perry is Executive Director of RISC, RI Statewide Coalition


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