Katy Burns: A high-stakes gamble
We’ve had an interesting run of governors in recent years.
After three terms of cautious and centrist Jeanne Shaheen, voters took a gamble and elected self-described “loose cannon” Craig Benson. He lasted only two years before voters dumped him for John Lynch, if anything more low key and centrist than Shaheen. He was so popular he was rewarded with an unprecedented four terms before retiring from office.
Enter Maggie Hassan. I suspect a lot of voters were expecting Lynch-with-a-skirt, another cautious centrist.
Instead we got Maggie Hassan, gambling queen. We have entered the Era of Magical Thinking. All we need is a little gambling money, and our problems will be solved!
To be fair to our new governor, throughout her campaign she said forthrightly that she favored one “highly regulated, high-end casino.” It became a mantra, and she’s repeating it almost robotically today, two months into her term. Those who voted for her knew that, or should have. And her opponent supported one as well, so it’s not as if voters had much of a choice.
It is, though, one thing to wish for a jackpot. It’s another entirely to assume that the wish will come true – and stake your future on it. Especially since time after time casino proponents have been shot down in the Legislature. Just ask Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, the Energizer Bunny of the pro-gambling forces, whose obsessive but unsuccessful pursuit of expanded gambling in New Hampshire over what must be decades has awed supporters and detractors alike.
In her budget proposal to the New Hampshire Legislature, Hassan listed any number of wondrous things, from increased aid to the mentally ill and our poorest citizens to restored (and much needed) support for the state’s higher educational institutions. Those of us inclined to view such stuff as good goals for government listened and smiled.
And then came the magical thinking. Hassan included in her budget $80 million from a casino. A casino that doesn’t exist. More to the point, a casino that is not, so far, authorized by law in the good state of New Hampshire. And if the past is any guide, it may well not be in the future either.
The recklessness of Hassan’s plan is made even clearer by a report just last Thursday concluding that a casino – however “highly regulated and high-end” – would do zilch for the New Hampshire economy. The report
was issued by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, a well-respected think tank without an ideological agenda.
It anticipates what will almost certainly be true – that at least one casino (and one likely a lot more “high-end” than anything anticipated here) will open in Massachusetts, which is well along in the process already. What the report says is that any profits to the state in the proposal the governor is floating would likely be matched by the costs to the state, including that of coping with the social costs incurred by problem gamblers. The net effect on the state’s budget? Zero.
And that’s assuming the Legislature approved a “well regulated, high-end” New Hampshire casino and did so quickly enough to include anticipated licensing fees in this biennium’s budget. Both of those are big ifs.
This latest cold water being dashed on Hassan’s proposal by the think tank report is only one of the reasons why casinos are a lousy idea.
For starters, they don’t really work – not for any significant time. If initially there is a spurt of enthusiasm – with cash flowing into casinos and into state coffers – it doesn’t last. That has been true throughout the country.
Close to home, in just the past few years ago, reliance on gambling revenues has proven illusory. The take from Delaware’s slots casinos dropped, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods in Connecticut lost market share, and Rhode Island – the most financially strapped state in New England – has had to bail out its main casino and add additional games to try to draw in more gamblers.
Now the state is heavily dependent on casino revenue, which could drop dramatically with the advent of gambling palaces in Massachusetts.
The most recent state to come a financial cropper with gambling revenue is, interestingly, New Jersey, which pioneered big-time gambling in 1976 in hopes of revitalizing the aging seaside resort of Atlantic City. And the bloom is sure off that rose.
Revenue at all the gambling dens is down dramatically in recent years. A lavish new $2.6 billion resort built with plenty of help from taxpayers – isn’t that always the case? – has filed for bankruptcy less than a year after opening. And the state, in the words of the New York Times is “doubling down . . . (and) leading the race to embrace increasingly popular but still controversial models that would extend betting well beyond the destination casino approach.”
In a desperate attempt to keep the gambling dollars rolling in, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has signed a bill authorizing internet gambling. Folks can bet – and lose – on their smart phones. He’s already signed a bill last year approving sports betting and is now fighting the feds who want to keep it illegal.
Casinos and their hotels are already experimenting with in-room gambling, much like in-room movies or mini-bars. And imaginative lawmakers are making noises about “pop-up” casinos, materializing magically at sports events, concerts and the like. It will be all gambling! All the time! Everywhere!
And that’s the way it inevitably goes, despite Hassan’s insistence that she will countenance only one casino and her assurance – made just Friday on NHPR – that we can avoid the problems we’ve seen in other states because we have gambling already and have long experience with horse racing. That’s as silly as when, a few years ago, D’Allesandro – reminded that we don’t have the requisite regulatory authority established to handle major gambling operations – replied airily that “We have the wherewithal and the desire to manage it properly.” Problem solved!
The truth is, the casinos and their ilk always win. That’s true whether for individual gamblers or for the cities and states relying on professional high stakes gambling to solve all their problems. And there’s no such thing as just a little gambling. It will grow. Period.
Hassan’s trust in the wisdom of bringing in gambling sharks to save us reminds me of old westerns when naïve townspeople, terrorized by some bully or another, bring in another, bigger bully to save them. And we all know what happens next.
It’s crazy to depend on gambling as a savior. And crazier yet to depend on it before it actually even exists.
(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)