Monday, March 23, 2009

When the economy goes to the dogs, call in the horses

Bluffton Today

Traditionally, the months of January and February are devoted to the budget. We wrestle it through, and then we get down to other business.

This year (and mostly likely next year, as well), things have been dramatically different. Our budget woes are of a different magnitude that even very senior legislators have seen. Consequently, the "other business" we are looking at is how to generate more revenue for the immediate future so we are not caught in the box of using short-term dollars for long-term obligations.

Stimulus money, rearranging our debt, and raiding the trust funds, are not examples of my idea of sound financials.

What I’m talking about is revenue to support those functions of the state that you have a right to expect from us, such as education, health and human services, roads and bridges, judiciary and prisons, and a host of other essential services. Currently, we can’t support these core functions at a creditable level.

The obvious answer is to raise taxes. It is also the wrong answer. We have the second highest unemployment rate in the country and a plummeting economy that could very easily be further damaged by extracting more tax dollars from our people. Even if the economy were not foundering, raising taxes is my personal "least favorite" option.

Let me say at this point that there are currently a lot of ideas bouncing around the state house seeking support. I am going to report on one idea that might offer some attractive possibilities, as it would be a good multiplier for many of the tourism related assets we now enjoy.

That idea is pari-mutuel betting. Horse racing, dog racing, jai alai, and the remote versions of gambling that are related to these events, have a large and dedicated following. Many of these folks pass through South Carolina on the way to Florida because they want to play golf, go to the beach, but also enjoy gambling at state sanctioned pari-mutuel venues. These visitors provide Florida with hundred of millions of tax dollars each year directly from gambling, not even counting the accommodations and hospitality revenues to local governments.

Having said all that, I know our state has recent experience with video poker that was hardly salutary. However, comparing the very low end of the gaming spectrum represented by video poker with the higher end associated with pari-mutuel betting is not an instructive comparison. Another contrast is that pari-mutuel betting would have a strong supporting effect on our existing visitor offerings, such as golf, tennis, kayaking, and beach related fun. It’s certainly worth thoughtful and serious consideration.

Which is what I’m asking you today. What do you think? Would horse racing be a good fit for Jasper County, or dog racing or jai alai for Georgetown or Myrtle Beach? Is this something we need to study, perhaps getting some hard figures so we can do a proper cost/benefit analysis? Is it a bad idea from the get-go?

Let me know. Shoot me an email, or give me a call. Better yet, write a letter to the editor detailing experience you have had in other places with pari-mutuel betting.

I believe in the wisdom of the seemingly chaotic marketplace of ideas. I have made a pretty good political career taking your expressed wisdom to Columbia with me. You’ve never let me down. This is why we call it the House of Representatives.