Katy Burns: Oops! Lemons for casino backers
Once again that old gambling truism was proved right: The House always wins.
In this case, the winner was our House of Representatives, famous (or infamous, if you prefer) for standing staunchly against the expansion of gambling in the Granite State.
Too bad for Gov. Maggie Hassan and a flock of state senators. They bet the farm – well, maybe not so much the farm as the financial future of the state – on expanded gambling, to wit, a “highly regulated, high-end casino” that would flood the coffers with cash.
Instead, as so often happens to wildly optimistic gamblers, they crapped out. They drew a dead man’s hand, they threw snake eyes. They pulled the lever and it came up lemons. And I’d happily continue this merry string of similes but, alas, I am not a gambler myself and my only knowledge of the lingo comes from a stint, back in the dark ages, as stage manager of a community theater production of Guys and Dolls. You get the picture, though.
I’d say it’s sad, but it’s really not. For all the blather about how “high-end” and “highly regulated” this casino would be, it seemed that the more members of the House’s super-committee dug into the details of the proposal, the more the proposal looked like a bad deal for New Hampshire, one designed more to please one particularly well-connected supplicant and to reap maximum benefits for that supplicant than to protect the interests of New Hampshire, its citizenry and its treasury.
For a view of the Senate’s legislation – which breezed through that body almost effortlessly – let’s turn to the inimitable Steve Vaillancourt, currently serving as a Republican representative from the good city of Manchester. Vaillancourt is a staunch supporter of expanded gambling and has been called many things, not all flattering, during his long service in the legislature. But stupid is certainly not one of them. And his summation of the proposal facing the
House was probably the most quoted analysis of the entire debate Wednesday.
“This is a tremendous bill, a real bargain and one that represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he declaimed on the House floor.
“Unfortunately, this is a tremendous bill not for the people of New Hampshire but for one out-of-state gambling interest,” a company, he said, “that has spent endless time and money to convince us this is a bargain.”
There seemed to be general agreement among the nay-sayers that Vaillancourt was on the money. Far be it for me to imply that the governor and a majority of the senate were, well, rubes targeted by city slickers. But I still can’t help thinking that the sharpies at Millennium Gaming saw a really attractive turnip truck just loaded with fresh produce and rosy-cheeked farmers chugging into sight.
And now, it appears, all that schmoozing by the sharpies with the locals and the cash-hungry state officials was for naught. So it is over.
Except that’s it’s not. You know – you know – that Millennium and its lobbyists will be back. Again and again and again. And hot on their heels will be the lobbyists for all the other out-of-state gambling moguls eager to grab what they firmly believe should be their share of Granite Staters’ cash. When they see a state with a tax structure as dysfunctional and as antiquated as ours, totally detached from 21st century reality, they salivate overtime, convinced they can charm us into believing that they have an easy answer to our woes.
But saying that doesn’t do a whit of good, because they will be back, and chances are a lot of our elected officials – straight-jacketed by the absurd “pledge” they take yet duty-bound to try to deal with contemporary problems and needs – will again fall victim to the piper’s song. After all, what did we hear this time?
Ah, yes. Gambling – and it is gambling, not “gaming” but plain old gambling, the thing that our straight-laced forebears warned us about – will solve all our problems.
We were told that the cash from this one “high-end, highly-regulated” casino would provide local school building aid and restore funding to our financially strapped state higher education programs. We would be able to repair our crumbling roads and red-listed bridges. We could properly fund our social services budget and increase reimbursement to hospitals for uncompensated heath care. The casino would solve our unemployment problems and boost help for the North Country.
Thanks to that casino, we would clean the air and the water and cure acne. And yes, the endlessly increasing list of benefits got just about that silly.
The just-rejected proposal wouldn’t likely have been “high-end” in the way we think of it. In fact, as good reporting by both the Monitor and NHPR showed, Millennium specializes in what you might call glorified slots palaces, modest places aimed not at out-of-state high-rollers but at locals. As such, whatever money the locals dumped at the gambling tables and the slots would be cash not spent in New Hampshire restaurants and other businesses but instead sent off to Millennium’s Nevada headquarters. And this would certainly be true of any similar venture, whether run by Millennium or some other out-of-town gambling company.
That would also mean cash not spent in truly local entertainment venues. Even a modest casino has enough financial clout to drain entertainment dollars that now support such treasured venues as our Capitol Center for the Arts, which simply couldn’t compete with the bargain prices and exclusionary contracts a casino in Salem, subsidized by gambling, could offer on big acts.
That casino would mean all the social ills that come with increased gambling close to home.
And finally, forget the one-casino notion. As Monitor reader Byron Champlin pointed out in a letter to the editor, when our state’s ground-breaking lottery – touted to finance education – began 50 years ago, bettors could buy $3 tickets for drawings twice a year. Today there is an endless assortment of lottery “games” available every day of the year. Lottery officials and employees are on a continuous quest to expand their offerings and thus their revenue. And we still can’t properly finance our schools.
Once one casino is approved, the pressure for more would be relentless – the North Country resorts, a country club in Hudson, the Loudon speedway are only a few of the outfits that are clamoring for their own tickets to instant gambling riches.
Champlin cited a sentiment ascribed to the great American skeptic H.L. Mencken. For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple and wrong.
And casino gambling is exactly such a solution. Let’s hope we remember that next time.