Editorial: Hassan presents lawmakers with a terrible choice
Gov. Maggie Hassan is candid and spot-on when detailing the problems facing the state of New Hampshire and the need to prioritize how to address them. Repairing the state’s broken mental-health system is crucial. So is progress on rebuilding the state’s infrastructure, starting with the worst of the red-listed bridges; restoring funds for a program that takes children off the path to prison; and ensuring that higher education has the ability to meet employer needs and keep talented young people in the state.
Hassan, who met with the Monitor editorial board Friday, is equally clear about where she wants to get the money to address those problems. The governor supports, in a phrase repeated metronomically as she stumps the state to push her plan, a single “highly regulated, high-end casino” in the southern part of the state. Her willingness to let people know where she stands on such signal issues early in the debate is refreshing and appreciated. But her plan presents lawmakers, particularly those in the House who oppose expanded gambling, with an awful choice.
Reject the casino plan, Hassan warns, and the first things to go to balance the budget will be the money she wants to spend to rebuild decimated programs. Gone would be more money for community housing for the mentally ill, the university system, needy students and hospitals.
But if lawmakers accept the casino, along with uncertain and unstable revenue would come more gambling addicts, a loss of revenue for existing New Hampshire businesses, an increase in gambling lobby influence over the Legislature and eventually a change in the image and nature of the Granite State.
Hassan doesn’t believe that future lawmakers will accede to pressure to permit more than one major casino because she believes the market is too small to support it. Depending on what happens in Massachusetts, which has approved three casinos, that’s probably true. But in a state with a structural budget deficit, the temptation to bring in additional revenue by licensing small casinos and slots parlors will be enormous. Some of that pressure will come from communities whose residents refuse to raise their already unfair and burdensome property taxes. Opposition to slots parlors or racinos will fold faster than someone holding a busted straight.
If, as we hope, the House rejects expanded gambling, legislators will have to look elsewhere for the $80 million in casino licensing revenue in the governor’s budget. They could, as Hassan fears, opt to stay a course that’s led to multiple lawsuits, cratered roads and the immoral treatment of people suffering from mental illness. Or they might, as they have in the past, raise existing taxes and fees, including taxes on business. In a state struggling to strengthen its economy, the latter would be counterproductive. A third option would be to repeat the raid on funds now shared with cities and towns, for instance, by swiping some or all of the $58.6 million annual share of the rooms and meals tax that they still get.
A study released last week by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies concluded that at the proposed 30 percent state share of casino revenue, New Hampshire would lose money, not gain it, because the take would not offset the additional social costs of gambling and other revenue losses. Gambling revenue overall continues to decline, and three states have already legalized gambling over the internet. That makes permitting a casino an even dicier gamble.
There is a fourth option open to the governor and Legislature should the casino bill fail, but that option would involve breaking The Pledge.