Holding the money may be the best deal.
The return of spring means the death of many trees as cities and towns print warrants, budgets, ballots and informational handouts.
I can't tell you which side will take top honors at the annual debating conventions - also known as town meetings - but I can tell you that much of what you'll hear there about poverty-stricken taxpayers will be hot air. Here's why.
A report released this week by researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth found that Massachusetts residents spent $1.1 billion at out-of-state casinos in 2007. And that tells only part of the story when it comes to assessing the discretionary spending enjoyed by Massachusetts residents.
In fiscal 2007, the Massachusetts State Lottery collected $4.46 billion in gross revenue. About 69 percent of lottery money is returned to cities and towns as local aid, so let's assume Massachusetts residents threw away "only" about $1.38 billion on lottery tickets, and that sales to out-of-state residents are roughly balanced by purchases that our residents make in other states' games.
The bottom line is that Massachusetts residents spent at least $2.48 billion last year on gambling. This $2.48 billion was not exacted by any tax collector, school district, or government edict. This $2.48 billion was offered to convenience store clerks, lottery agents and one-armed bandits throughout the year in return for small scraps of paper bearing dreams of wealth or the hope of seeking three oranges in a row. This $2.48 billion wasn't spent on teacher salaries, new computers, library books, bridge repairs, pothole patching or senior bus transportation. This $2.48 billion wasn't spent to build a fire station, buy a new police cruiser, shore up a stabilization account, fix historic property, or save the old town farm from the claws of development.
If I were feeling mean-spirited and puritanical, I'd add the billions spent on cigarettes and cheap beer, but at least those purchases offer a guaranteed return on investment.
Divide this $2.48 billion by the state's population of 6,437,193 (2006 U.S. Census bureau estimate), and you get an average of $385.26 per person. This is the figure that I want you to bear in mind as you listen to these endless town meeting debates from the comfort of your high school gymnasium bleacher seat.
Unless human nature was amended over the winter, half the speakers at town meeting this spring will plead for additional spending, usually on behalf of "the children." The other half will plead poverty, either for themselves, or on behalf of "seniors on fixed incomes," some of whom, I cannot resist pointing out, will be jumping on buses headed to Foxwoods.
I realize that some of you never visit casinos or play the lottery, and many more of you do so only occasionally, as part of a well-planned family budget. I understand a few of you really cannot afford to pay more taxes, however worthy the causes presented. But I'd bet my last poker chip that most of the speakers complaining about the unbearable costs of local services are perfectly capable of paying their share of whatever big-ticket item is on their town meeting warrant this spring.
This is, mind you, a very different thing from saying they should spend the money. Whether the good folks of Popperville should educate their children in palaces or one-room schoolhouses heated with coal stoves is for them to decide. Most folks fall somewhere between those extremes, and the reason we hold town meetings is to find out how 51 percent of the voters who bother to show up feel about the matter.
Lest my fiscally conservative friends think I've taken leave of my senses, I hasten to note that I rarely support overrides or lavish increases in government spending, for the same reason I don't visit casinos or buy lottery tickets. I like my money to remain in my hands. However, when I vote against as much as $385.26 (per person) in additional civic goodies this spring, I will do so not because I can't afford it, but because I prefer to put my money somewhere else that offers me, on balance, greater value.
For me, that somewhere else might be a weekend at a bed and breakfast, yet another pampered cat, or a family vacation. For some, it might be "mad money" for a quick trip to Atlantic City or the Connecticut woods. I'm fine with that. Spend your money as you will. I only ask that should you speak on town meeting floor, spare me and your fellow citizens the poverty speech. Be honest. You have the money. You simply prefer to spend it somewhere else.