Just as we all used to follow the form of horses – think the Great Depression and the success of Seabiscuit to see we all love a champion – the latest form book covers the race among US states to balance their budgets. Of course, everyone has been focussing on California with Arnold Schwarzenegger leading the charge to the winning post on getting the budget signed into law. He has enough strength for arm twisting and ‘gator wrassling to bulldoze the bill through. But Pennsylvania is just as interesting with the Governor’s office matching California’s use of IOUs by refusing to pay funds to the four state universities. Probably someone somewhere is running a book on which US state will be the first to declare itself bankrupt. These would be the front runners among an alarming number of states lacking initial prudence and the political will to raise taxes, to cut spending, or both.
Anyway, the real point of interest in Pennsylvania is the growing threat of litigation from the group of license holders who run slot machines. When the licenses were first issued, the state sold maximum exclusivity for a high fee (that’s $50 million a license). The enabling law is very clear. No other gambling outlet will be allowed to compete directly with the market for slot machines. At the time, this looked a good deal for both sides. Gambling was a popular activity and the state benefited from a generous input to its finances. Fast forward and the recession has forced people to cut back on their discretionary spending. This means less money to spend on trips to gamble. Ironically, the casino operators to benefit from this have been online. Had it not been for the changes in the law making it difficult to move money into and out of the online casino accounts, they would have cleaned up. So this leaves the current license holders under pressure with building work on some of the proposed casino and resort sites put on hold. While the government finds an expanding black hole eating up its cash reserves as tax revenue falls. The state’s answer is proposals to increase the number of slot machines allowed in the existing resorts and to license new resorts. To the existing license holders, this looks like plans to allow direct competition from new operators. They are up in arms with their attorneys slavering on the end of a short leash, just waiting for the chance to sue.
There’s no doubt slots still represents a pot of gold for both the license holders and the state. The machines are still a big draw even though the recession is biting hard. But this plan looks like an expansion too far. The average spend has dropped. If the state increases the number of machines, this will only spread the same amount of money around more machines. It’s not going to increase the size of the spend. This leaves the state with a growing hole in its accounts and the existing license holders with a good case in contract and constitutional law. With the online casinos introducing new slots games every month and keeping up player interest, this is no time to be fighting over a reducing market in the real world.