ATLANTA — A tell-tale sign America's chips are down: States are increasingly turning to gambling to plug budget holes.
Proposals to allow or expand slots or casinos are percolating in at least 14 states, including Kentucky, tempting legislators and governors at a time when many must decide between cutting services and raising taxes.
Gambling has hard-core detractors in every state, but when the budget-balancing alternatives lawmakers must consider include reducing education funding or lifting sales taxes, resistance is easier to overcome, political analysts said.
"Who wouldn't be interested if you're a politician who needs to fund programs?" said Bo Bernhard, director of research at the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas — a government-funded program.
While gambling has not been immune from the recession, it has held up relatively well compared with states' other revenue streams, such as income and sales taxes. This helps explain why past industry growth spurts have been preceded by economic downturns, experts said.
For example, Rhode Island opened the country's first racetrack casino in 1992, and four states soon followed. More recently, states faced with sagging revenues during the 2001 recession joined multistate lotteries such as Powerball and gave more leeway to Native American tribes seeking to expand their casinos.
Analysts say the latest round of gambling initiatives are noteworthy in volume and ambition — a sign that the industry aims to capitalize on states' badly bruised economies.
"From the gambling industry's point of view, this is their big chance," said Earl Grinols, an economics professor at Baylor University who specializes in gambling.
Ohio's casino advocates, including lobbyists working for Penn National Gambling Inc., are pushing a variety of large-scale development projects. In Georgia, a developer working with Dover Downs Inc., wants to transform a blighted section of downtown Atlanta with a 29-story hotel that would attract tourists with more than 5,500 video lottery terminals.
The developer pitching the $450 million Atlanta project, Dan O'Leary, estimates $300 million a year in revenues would be funneled to the state, helping pay for a popular lottery-funded college tuition scholarship.
Even Hawaii, which along with Utah is one of two states without a lottery or other form of legalized gambling, might consider a change. Aides to Gov. Linda Lingle, long an opponent of gambling, say she is open to discussing it as a way to close the state's growing budget gap.
But while advocates argue that casinos will help attract jobs and revitalize downtrodden areas, religious groups and other critics fear gambling has a disproportionately negative effect on lower-income people, and does not provide long-term economic growth.
"We've got gambling in 48 states, and you'd think if it worked, you wouldn't have budget problems or education problems," said Tom Gray, a field director for StopPredatoryGambling.org.