Riverboat casinos are giant money-sucking machines. A $30 million riverboat casino operated by Harrah’s can suck in $200,000 a day from bettors, assuming a typical daily loss of $50 per customer. This kind of highstakes betting used to be called gambling. But liberals have come up with a new name—”gaming.” It was formerly recognized as a vice. But it is now classed as “recreation” and “entertainment.”

The difference is that state and local governments have taken over the gambling rackets, now known as the “gaming industry.” The St. Louis Port Authority estimates that the new “gaming industry” on its riverfront when fully operational with four casinos will bring in “revenues” of $240 million a year and provide the city with $53 million in new tax dollars.

The truth is that state and local governments are hooked on the myth that they can gamble their way to prosperity—a notion every bit as ludicrous as Washington’s belief that it can tax-and-spend the nation to boom times. Riverboat casinos are the ultimate expression of the fantasy—expressed in state-paid TV ads—that the way to become a millionaire is not through hard work and saving but to bet the grocery money against the long odds of lotteries and casinos.

Armed with these odds, gambling pros on the riverboats reel in chumps by the thousands and systematically strip them of their cash before dumping them ashore. It all takes place in an atmosphere of great fun and frivolity while local and state governments cheer them on in anticipation of sharing the loot. The people who own and run these boats are essentially fast-buck artists who jump in quick when there is a new gambling—excuse me, gaming—opportunity and jump out fast when their “business” slows down. Witness how three of the five riverboat casinos in Iowa hoisted anchor after only two years when juicier “markets” opened up in other states.

The riverboat gambling law passed by the Missouri Legislature and approved by Governor Carnahan calls for a $50,000 licensing fee (to keep the mom-and-pop casino operators out) and provides for the state to collect 20 percent of the “adjusted gross income” of these boats. But it is a safe bet that the social costs of teaching so many citizens to become habitual gamblers will largely nullify the gains that Governor Carnahan and the Democratic majority in the state legislature are gambling on. In virtually every case, increased gambling is accompanied by higher welfare costs, much greater costs for treating compulsive gamblers, and increased crime.

There are three primary reasons the riverboat casino craze will likely end with a whimper. First, fierce competition is emerging as paddleboat owners from every state with a major waterway scramble to join the riverboat “gold rush.” Illinois has already launched eight riverboat casinos, Missouri is scrambling to put a raft of new riverboats in the water, and Indiana has just approved 12 more. The President-Casino Mississippi, which opened in Biloxi in August 1992, has already seen its competition increase from zero to at least six riverboats in the area. High-stakes land-based casino operators also have big plans for launching riverboat operations. As this frenzy heats up, winnings are bound to fall and many of these “dreamboats” will sink in a river of red ink.

Second, the flood of new gambling money being anticipated is not going to arrive. A study by the St. Louis Port Authority found that 5.7 million of the 7.2 million gamblers expected to patronize the new floating gambling joints will be from the St. Louis area. “This means that 80 percent of the money spent on gambling here would have otherwise been spent on other forms of entertainment—or remained in accounts in St. Louis banks,” the St. Louis Business Journal reported. After the initial wave of “gulls” and compulsive gamblers has been fleeced, the public enthusiasm for this organized robbery almost certainly will wane. The supply of pigeons is not infinite.

Third, the Democrats who have ruled the Missouri Legislature for decades, along with tax king Mel Carnahan, will probably be thrown out by Missourians when they grow tired of the high taxes, rabid promotion of gambling, and new $300 million school tax law that makes puppets of local school districts.

St. Louisans would do well to consider the experience of Alton, as told recently by John J. Dunphy, owner of a bookstore in that city. Dunphy reports that the arrival of the original Alton Belle casino at this city in 1991 brought more than $3 million in proceeds to the city government but that the effect on Alton business has been negligible. Dunphy says he has yet to have a blackjack player fresh off the Belle dash into his bookshop to purchase the works of Ibsen or Camus. And even the local bars failed to get new business from Belle patrons. Other retailers have confirmed that those who come to try their luck on the Alton Belle just gamble and go home.

St. Louisans should ask themselves if they really want wall-to-wall riverboat casinos on their riverfront. That is what they are liable to get if the city fills four available berths with floating casinos. That noted philanthropist Donald Trump has indicated an interest in establishing a world-class casino in St. Louis and has said that he might toss in a convention center/hotel to sweeten the deal. But should St. Louisans aspire to see their city turn into Las Vegas East? They should also ponder the prospect of having their city government influenced by multimillionaire casino-boat owners. Pittsburgh mogul John Connelly, chairman and chief executive of President Riverboat Casinos, Inc., is sitting on a $390 million pile of stock in that company. As I was writing this, he was also about to become nearly $80 million richer by issuing two million shares of stock in his company (which will reduce his share to 32.4 percent) in anticipation of opening the Admiral casino on the St. Louis riverfront.

Connelly’s influence in St. Louis is already attested to by the fact that for $20,580 a year his companies control six premium lease slots on the St. Louis riverfront, including three that could be used for gambling boats. The six include the permanently moored Robert E. Lee restaurant, the Becky Thatcher, Huck Finn, and Tom Sawyer cruise ships, and, in between these, the Admiral and vacant President and Belle of St. Louis, as well as an office barge. Connelly was also able to wangle state legislative approval, via Representative Jet Banks (D-St. Louis), to have his Admiral casino remain permanently moored on the St. Louis riverfront while other riverboat casinos have to cruise the Mississippi.

Iowa’s riverboat gambling director. Chuck Patton, admits that casinos have brought an increase in crime to his state. When high-rollers turn the St. Louis riverfront into a gambling mecca, more police will be needed on the riverfront. But where will the city get the added police when it is already far short of the number of officers needed to fight St. Louis’s escalating crime?

As we go to press, the Missouri Supreme Court has just ruled that the statute authorizing riverboat casinos in the state is unconstitutional because it excludes certain types of gambling. Missouri’s legislature has hence authorized a statewide vote—perhaps as early as April—for a constitutional amendment approving riverboat casinos.

But regardless of how this plays out, Missourians should remember that government is supposed to protect the interests of citizens and that encouraging Missourians to try their luck against the long odds of riverboat games—at an average loss of $50 per customer—is a disservice to the people the government is sworn to protect. Claiming these money-grabbing water palaces will produce jobs and prosperity is a stunt worthy of Barnum.