Sen. Michael Walters’ decision to co-sponsor legislation that would allow casinos in Robeson and a few other counties in North Carolina doesn’t signal any fondness on his part for gambling. Rather, it underlines his concern for his native Robeson County, which is broke, desperate for new jobs, and getting left behind.
The promise is to direct proceeds, from revenues and fees, to enhance education, economic development and tourism in this state, while making busy idle hands in Robeson County.
The legislation could imperil Walters’ chances for re-election, but making decisions that are easily assailed is part of leadership. For the rolling of the dice, Walters should be commended.
The local debate, and it will be lively, should be limited to the merits of a casino or two in Robeson County. Here’s what we can say with certainty:
— If a casino were in Robeson County, no one would be forced to gamble. That would be a choice.
— A casino in Robeson County would enhance tourism efforts, making Robeson a destination county, and not just a quick stop on Interstate 95 for a meal and gasoline, or a longer stay for a night’s rest.
— A casino in Robeson County would enhance Lumberton’s efforts to transform into a retirement community. Some retired folks enjoy golf, and some prefer slot machines.
— A casino in Robeson County would bring jobs, hundreds certainly, and perhaps thousands. Hotels, restaurants and retail outlets would pop up nearby. That’s in addition to the jobs the casino itself would produce.
— A casino in Robeson County would add significantly to the tax base, bringing some relief to long-suffering property owners. It would also turn the flow of sales tax revenues into more of a flood.
— A casino in Robeson County would redirect “empty” dollars that are now spent on sweepstakes gambling and the lottery — money that does little to benefit this county — into dollars that would provide some benefits to Robeson County.
— A casino in Robeson County would make property in this county, land and homes, more valuable.
— A casino in Robeson would plunge some people into poverty; it would lift many more out of it, not because they hit the jackpot, but because they found employment.
The debate, however, is unlikely to be about merit, but will swing on morality. For those about to mount the soapbox, remember this isn’t a dry-wet choice, that gambling opportunities abound in Robeson County, on the Internet and with the lottery.
The legislation is designed to entice the giants of the gambling world to Robeson County; it’s not a mechanism to slip a slot machine into the corner of the convenience store. It provides heavy regulation, something that is lacking in gaming opportunities now, and funnels dollars to law enforcement and social programs that combat gambling addiction. And don’t bite on the idea that a casino would lead to more crime; the biggest driver of crime is poverty, and a casino would mean fewer poor people.
Senate Bill 523 has a tough slog, and its passage isn’t a good bet, especially with Republicans in control of the General Assembly. But Republicans come in two shades — there are Republicans with conservative social values who are certain to oppose the bill, but there are also Republicans of a pro-business bend who might surprise us.
Those who line up against it should do more than just say no; they should offer an alternative route to better days for have-not counties like Robeson. If you don’t have a better idea, you don’t have an idea at all.