Editorial: Promise of state aid isn’t worth this gamble
Did you hear the one about the free money from the state?
That, in a nutshell, was our reaction to the latest gambit from the never-say-die casino gambling crowd: a new bill that includes a sweetener for cash-strapped communities and long-suffering property taxpayers. The legislation, which would authorize not one but two casinos in the state, also includes $25 million to be divvied up among New Hampshire’s 234 cities and towns.
For Concord, it would mean $1.2 million. Allenstown, where voters were asked to consider a $1 million cut to the school budget just last month, would get $92,000. Franklin, whose schools are regularly challenged to do more with less, would get $316,936.
We don’t doubt that the money could go a long way. Consider how many roads could be smoothed out, how much school technology could be purchased, how many tax bills could be lightened.
Nonetheless, our advice to the New Hampshire House, which has long rejected casino gambling bills of all sorts: Stand firm. This money – called a “nice bribe” by a spokesman for the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce at a hearing last week – isn’t nearly enough to offset the serious harm two casinos would create. And, by the way, can you actually trust the state government to keep that money flowing when times get tough?
Consider what the state has done to municipal and school budgets in just the past few years:
∎ It suspended revenue-sharing grants – the money that the casino bill seeks to restore.
∎ It imposed a moratorium on school construction aid.
∎ It left the never-quite-adequate per-pupil “adequacy” grants frozen for years on end. (Asked about that in a recent interview at the Monitor, Gov. Maggie Hassan argued that simply not reducing that aid during the difficult years of the recession was a commitment to local school districts.)
∎ It eliminated the state’s once 35 percent share of municipal employee retirement costs.
∎ It even gave up paying for paupers’ funerals, leaving that to cities and towns. (No downshifting too small or callous!)
Times and priorities change, and economic crises force difficult decisions. Even in relatively good times, downshifting is a bipartisan habit among New Hampshire politicians, who oversee a budget whose expenses routinely outpace the state’s antique tax system’s ability to pay for them. As a result, the idea that local communities could count on the money in the new casino bill seems like a fool’s bet indeed.
Regular readers might note that the Monitor pooh-poohed arguments by those opponents of expanding New Hampshire’s Medicaid program who worried that the federal government wouldn’t keep its promise to pay for it. But there’s a big difference: If the feds actually bailed on the Medicaid expansion, New Hampshire would be left paying for something terrifically worthwhile: health care for its neediest residents. If the state bailed on revenue sharing (again), New Hampshire would simply be left with casinos and high property taxes.