By Abdul Hakim-Shabazz
I think I’ve found a possible answer to some of Indiana’s local government money problems – video gaming machines.
Abdul Hakim-Shabazz is an attorney and the editor and publisher of IndyPoltics.Org.
Allow me to explain. You see, I was in my home state of Illinois this past weekend taking care of the usual business, and while there I spent some time Friday night in one of my favorite watering holes in Springfield, a place called the Brewhaus. I discovered it when I was a graduate student in the mid ‘90s. It was a classic dive bar: gross bathrooms, funny smelling carpet, booths that weren’t in the best shape. But the alcohol was cheap and the people were awesome.
Fast forward nearly 20 years and I noticed some major changes. The old carpet was replaced by wooden floors, the furniture had been replaced, you could use the bathroom without wearing a protective HAZMAT suit and they had video poker machines. Yes, video poker machines that actually paid out. In Illinois, video gaming in bars is perfectly legal and has been since 2009. And it’s not just the bars and taverns that benefit.
According to the Illinois Gaming Board, video gaming has generated more than $180 million in tax revenue over the last 12 months for state and local governments, $150 million for the state and $30 million for the locals. And in the land of tax caps and growing needs, video gaming in bars just might be what Indiana’s local governments need. The state already allows pull tabs in bars so this really wouldn’t be an expansion of gaming, just allowing another form to take place on the premises. And you don’t have to worry about minors being exposed to gaming, since they aren’t supposed to be in a bar in the first place. Also, the locals get the final say in whether the video poker machines are allowed. Currently, more than 100 municipalities in the Land of Lincoln have allowed for video gaming.
By the way, electronic gaming machines are already out there. According to the Indiana Gaming Commission, since 2011, more than 5,300 illegal gaming machines – i.e. “Cherrymasters” – have been confiscated, either by seizure or voluntary compliance.
Of course a lot of this would fall into the discussion of whether putting video gaming in bars would be an “expansion” of gaming. Some of us would argue that it isn’t because pull tabs are already allowed, but I know how my friends in the Legislature operate. And the impact on the casinos and horse tracks would have to be figured out as well.
I know they are concerned with declining revenues that allowing video gaming into bars and taverns might hurt their already struggling facilities. However, I don’t think it needs to be a zero-sum game. I think giving the race tracks and casinos more tax breaks to help them mitigate their losses would be wise. And the state can make up the loss revenue when it gets its cut from the video poker machines. Now, granted a video poker machine in a bar in Marion, Fort Wayne of Bedford isn’t going to bring the economic development that a casino might, but that’s not the point. Different types of gaming bring different types of economic activity and I think there is room for all. And I don’t think one necessarily harms the business of the other. If you’re going to a casino or the race track, you don’t just go for the gaming. You go for the entertainment and the experience that goes along with it. That’s not something you’re going to get at the neighborhood bar. I equate it to the difference between going to a football game or watching it on television.
And lest we forget, there is always the “moral” component to gaming. No offense, but I am not in the morality business, per se. I think if someone is already in a bar or a tavern, a video poker machine won’t make them any more or less moral than they were the day before the machine showed up.
So, at the very least, Indiana should take a serious look at video gaming in bars and taverns. I think it’s a good way that locals can generate revenue and there’s no real “expansion” since pulls tabs are already there. So step up to the machine and place your bets.
Abdul is an attorney and the editor and publisher of IndyPoltics.Org. He is also a frequent contributor to numerous Indiana media outlets. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.