Hassan: Without revenue from a casino, Legislature will have to make difficult cuts
Governor Maggie Hassan
(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
Many legislators may be unhappy that Gov. Maggie Hassan included $80 million in casino-licensing revenue in her proposed two-year state budget. But without that money, Hassan says, the Legislature will have to make painful cuts to her spending proposals in order to balance the budget.
“If we don’t have the revenues from one high-end, highly regulated casino license, then we are going to find ourselves making very difficult cuts, and . . . from the conversations I’ve been having, it appears to me that the Legislature will cut mental health, university funding, the things that were cut in the last budget,” Hassan, a Democrat, said Friday during an interview with Monitor editors.
Hassan’s proposed budget, unveiled last month, would increase total state spending in the next biennium by 10.2 percent from the current biennium, and increase general-fund spending by 7.1 percent. After the deep cuts in the state budget passed by the Legislature in 2011, she’s proposed increased funding for community colleges and public universities, mental-health services and other programs.
Hassan has backed legislation that would allow a single casino in the state, with an $80 million license fee that would help balance the next state budget. But while the GOP-led Senate has supported past casino proposals, the Democratic-led House has traditionally opposed expanded gambling.
It’s not clear if a casino bill would pass the House this year, and Republicans have called it risky for Hassan to include revenue from a casino license in her budget. But Hassan said things like higher education funding and a new women’s prison are important, and the state needs to find a way to pay for them.
“One of the concerns I have, and one of the things that I think we all need to think about, is, if the casino bill doesn’t pass and licensing fees aren’t available for the budget, it appears to me that the first things the Legislature will cut are exactly those things,” Hassan said.
The plan endorsed by Hassan, a bipartisan bill pending in the Senate, would levy a 30 percent tax on casino net earnings. But a report released Thursday by the nonpartisan New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies said the revenue raised under that plan could be canceled out by competition from Massachusetts and the social costs of expanded gambling.
In response, Hassan said the state will see social costs anyway as Massachusetts moves ahead with its plan to build three casinos and one slots parlor in the coming years.
“We will lose not only gambling revenue, but the rooms-and-meals revenue that goes with that, and that revenue will be used to build Massachusetts roads and bridges, while the social costs, to extent there are some, will come back to our state anyway because our residents live here,” she said. “So I think it’s really important to seize the moment, and I think it’s really important to take a look at what the numbers really are.”
But while the specifics of the legislation, such as the tax rate, could change through the legislative process, much will depend on what the overall market can support, she said.
“Obviously bills are works in progress, but there is a casino market, and a casino in southern New Hampshire will need to compete with rate structure as well,” Hassan said.
During last year’s campaign to replace outgoing four-term Democrat John Lynch, Hassan spoke often about the importance of investing in transportation infrastructure. She’s continued to highlight that theme since taking office in January.
Still, she declined to take a position on a bill pending in the House that would raise the gas tax by 15 cents over four years to fund road and bridge projects. The casino bill in the Senate is also in the mix, since it would earmark some revenue from the casino for transportation projects.
“I think we need to find a consensus way forward to fund long-term infrastructure, and I don’t know that I’m seeing consensus in either of those bills yet, but I’m really eager to work with members of the Legislature to find that consensus point,” Hassan said.
Hassan included more money in her budget for the Children in Need of Services, or CHINS, program, which was cut two years ago. The program provides counseling and other services to children with behavioral, truancy and other problems, to intervene before those issues can escalate to criminal behavior.
Her budget doesn’t fully restore what was cut, though, and the House last month passed a bill that would create a legislative committee to study the program and suggest legislation for next year to reform it.
“It’s a solid fix that contemplates additional changes after we’ve had a study,” Hassan said of her budget’s proposal for the CHINS program
Hassan yesterday also said the state should have a minimum wage – in 2011, the then-Republican-led Legislature repealed the state’s minimum wage. There are a number of bills pending at the Legislature that would set the state minimum wage at various rates, including one that would match the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.
But Hassan declined to say which bills she could support.
“I want to bring businesses and labor together and see what makes sense for people in terms of the actual rate,” she said. “But I do think it’s important for the state to have a minimum wage, and I do think it’s important for people who work hard to be able to support themselves and pay rent and support their family and afford health care.”
Hassan has also said she supports legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. There’s a bill in the House that would do that, but she said she’d be concerned if the legislation allowed patients to grow their own marijuana, instead of obtaining it at a special dispensary, or if the bill contained broad definitions for the medical conditions eligible for marijuana use.
“My preference would be that we start with tight prescribing definitions and (a) dispensary,” she said.
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)