Governor’s proposed budget relies heavily on $80 million from casino
Gov. Maggie Hassan’s ambitious plan for “rebuilding” New Hampshire, especially its universities and mental health services, depends heavily on the Legislature changing course and legalizing a casino.
Hassan unveiled a budget yesterday that anticipates a single high-end casino that would pay the state $80 million for a license and yearly taxes. She’s counting on half of that licensing fee being paid by next year, to help increase community mental health care and to restore state spending on universities and community colleges.
No governor has included casino revenue in a budget before, and several lawmakers were skeptical yesterday about a casino’s chances and Hassan’s licensing timeline.
“I just think that’s not a way we should be starting out with the budget,” said House Minority Leader Gene Chandler, a Bartlett Republican. “If it comes in and it happens later on, fine. I’m sure we can find a way to spend the money. But to plan on that is just setting us up for failure, and I think that’s wrong.”
But Hassan appears willing to make saying no difficult, especially for lawmakers who have said their priorities are helping college students and the mentally ill.
“The revenue from one casino would mean tens of millions of dollars a year that can be used to strengthen our economy and address our priorities, such as freezing in-state tuition and addressing our mental health crisis,” Hassan said.
She said she’ll leave the writing of casino legislation to lawmakers but intends to work with both chambers to get a bill passed. “Though this may be difficult,” Hassan said, “I ask that you keep an open mind as we all work together to advance the priorities that will help us build a more innovative economic future.”
The Senate will consider the first of two casino bills 9 a.m. Tuesday at the State House. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican, and Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat, shares Hassan’s vision of a single, high-end casino that carries an $80 million license fee. The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies has looked at a casino’s potential here and questioned the senators’ belief a license would sell for $80 million.
Seeing a possible benefit
Yesterday the group’s executive director, Steve Norton, said much will depend on what the legislation requires of the casino in terms of investment in a property and tax revenue. He thought Hassan’s timeline sounded ambitious given that the state still needs to establish casino regulation, put a license out to bid and test support in the host community.
Still, at least two casino opponents said yesterday they’ll reconsider their positions and possibly vote for a casino. Both see casino money as a way to pay for their priorities.
“There are so many important things in the budget that we want to see,” said House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat. He cited money for education, the disabled, a women’s prison, the elderly and the less fortunate, all of which are included in Hassan’s budget.
Shurtleff said he continues to share law enforcement’s concerns about crime associated with a casino but hopes those misgivings can be addressed with legislation. “I think at the end of the day, Democrats will get behind the governor and support her,” Shurtleff said.
Sen. David Boutin, a Hooksett Republican, said he too would support a casino if the Legislature dedicated “a good chunk” of annual tax revenue to roads and bridge repairs.
“If that is what it does, I think that is a much more practical way to address (those needs) than burdening working families with an increase in the gas tax or a surcharge on (vehicle) registrations,” Boutin said.
‘A lot of questions’
Gambling opponents quickly criticized Hassan’s casino hopes yesterday as unrealistic, irresponsible and even unconstitutional given that she’d allow just one casino. And they noted that past Legislatures have repeatedly rejected efforts to expand gambling.
“She is relying on $80 million from an activity that is currently illegal,” said Rep. David Hess, a Hooksett Republican who has led the fight against casinos in the state. “This is the first time I’ve heard a governor balance a budget on revenue that doesn’t exist.”
Rep. JR Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican, said he’s unwilling to consider legalizing casinos because other states that have done so haven’t seen the kind of money they expected.
“The governor is completely unrealistic in both the timeline and the amount of revenue,” Hoell said of Hassan’s budget. “Furthermore, bringing casinos to the state of New Hampshire would create incredible political corruption as is seen in Massachusetts and New Jersey.”
Rep. David Kidder, a New London Republican, won’t support a casino either, he said. “That is the last thing in the world we need,” he said.
In his eight years in the House, Kidder said he’s seen the predicted tax revenue for a casino decrease each year. And he believes the social costs will overtake revenues. “I just think it’s very short-sighted on “Hassan’s part,” he said.
The state Republican Party issued a statement against casino revenue.
“Governor Hassan needs to present a specific proposal for exactly what she plans to cut from her budget proposal if gambling fails to gain support in the Legislature as it has every time it has been considered, or, what taxes will she try to increase,” read a statement from party Chairwoman Jennifer Horn.
Some House Democrats also expressed discomfort with Hassan’s reliance on casino money.
Rep. Howard Moffett, a Canterbury Democrat serving his first term, said he had “a lot of questions” about Hassan’s casino proposal. He said everything he has read about casinos elsewhere leave him skeptical that New Hampshire could move quickly enough to collect license revenue next year.
“It just seems completely unrealistic to me as a way of plugging a major budget hole,” he said.
Rep. Jim MacKay, a Concord Democrat, has been a loud and longtime advocate for more community mental health care. He left Hassan’s budget address yesterday conflicted.
“At this point I don’t support the gambling, and as much as I would like to see revenue from that source, I think there are other social problems that are created by the gambling that would outweigh that,” he said. MacKay said he will likely feel differently if a casino is the only way to expand mental health care and services for the developmentally disabled.
(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323,
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @annmarietimmins. Reporter Ben Leubsdorf contributed to this report.)