To the Point for 3/24/05

21

THIS IS A CRITICAL TIME in Switzerland County and for other counties along the Ohio River who have a riverboat casino in them.

Indiana State Senator Robert Meeks has made a proposal to his constituents that would greatly reduce the amount of funds that counties like Switzerland would get. Instead, those funds would stay in Indianapolis to help the state out of its budget mess.

On page one of today’s edition, you will find the facts and figures of the situation. Numbers will tell you just how much money Switzerland County and others would not get — but that’s just part of the story.

Years ago Indiana legislators saw budget problems and decided that the way to fix them was with a lottery, so in October of 1988, the Indiana lottery came into existence.

That worked for awhile, but then lawmakers saw the opportunity to join with lotteries in other states for bigger lottery pots, and more money into state accounts. That’s when everyone started seeing the “Powerball” and its hundreds of millions in potential payouts.

A few years later, legislators presumably looked at what they considered to be poor, underdeveloped areas and decided that they needed some help. The city of Gary and other communities in “The Region” were struggling due to the loss of steel industry jobs; and at the other end of the state counties along the Ohio River like ours that had been ignored for years needed an economic boost after decades of non-growth.

So the folks in Indianapolis decided that we needed help, and naturally the way to help was to expand gambling in the state. Other states had seen economic booms with riverboat casinos, so why not in Indiana?

We were all filled with images of old-time riverboats meandering up and down the Ohio River, taking passengers back in time. It wasn’t really a casino, it was an experience.

So Indianapolis approved putting them on Lake Michigan to the north and the Ohio River to the south; and waited for the economic windfall to roll in.

Make no mistake, lawmakers in Indiana weren’t concerned with Switzerland County and others when casinos were legalized here; instead, they saw the opportunity to make more and more money — allowing them to hide the fact that thousands of jobs were leaving the state each year.

When riverboat casinos were a hit, lawmakers saw even more possibilities by allowing them to stay docked and stay open around the clock. Forget the “riverboat experience”, there was money to be made.

So here we are. Casinos are open around the clock, and people are coming. Switzerland County and Ohio County and others have been given the financial ability to pave roads and replace bridges and add to the quality of life of its residents.

New projects were started in areas, with local lawmakers believing that the steady stream of casino funds would exist for years. “Why would a casino company sink millions of dollars into land-based operations like hotels and golf courses and then leave?” That was the justification for local units of government to move forward on projects that they had needed to years.

What local units of government failed to see is that the danger doesn’t come from the casino leaving; but rather from the state government reaching down and grabbing such a big hunk of the pie that the local community is paralyzed.

More traffic means better roads and bridges, but all of that money now resides in Indianapolis. People moving here means a greater demand for housing and more school facilities, but as those needs grow, less and less funding is now coming back to help.

If Robert Meeks and his fellow lawmakers are successful in taking even more money (remember: counties were already capped in 2002 as to the maximum amount of profit it can see from a casino, the rest goes to the state), then Switzerland County and others run the risk of turning into nothing more than pass-through operations creating state revenue.

In education and other areas of government there is something called an “unfunded mandate”. That’s were a particular policy is made law and imposed on local government, but no money comes along to help implement those policies.

The state of Indiana has put a casino on the Ohio River in Switzerland County — it now appears that they are nothing more than floating unfunded mandates, funneling cash through our communities for the benefit of state government.