Proponents of gambling off base

Always surrounding the debate on expansion of gambling with casinos is the perceived urgent need that New Hampshire has for money. State finances all the time are used as rationale for having casinos to fill our coffers.

Last week, it was the budget hole that could be created by two different recent court decisions that found parts of the state’s tax on hospitals, the Medicaid Enhancement Tax, to be unconstitutional. I wrote last week about the “negative” outlook on the state’s finances issued by Standard and Poor’s after the court decisions. Moody’s, a second bond-rating agency, followed with a similar opinion.

The court decisions are a serious matter. But the Governor has already said the state will appeal the two Superior Court decisions to the Supreme Court. There is certainly an effort led by Senate President Chuck Morse (R-Salem), announced last Tuesday, to put forth a MET plan that will meet some objections of the hospitals that are plaintiffs in the cases and manage the impact on state finances.

To use the MET court cases last week to justify casinos comes after decades of similar urgent cries of “the state needs money,” always attempting to garner votes in the legislature to pass gambling bills.

A decade ago, the state needed money to subsidize thoroughbred horse racing at Rockingham Park. During the recession, some gambling proponents said the state needed casinos to raise $50 million for the Department of Health and Human Services. The Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010, and Speaker Bill O’Brien said the state needed money to reduce business taxes and spur economic development.

Last year, the urgent cry was that the state needed money for higher education, roads and bridges, and $10 million to push economic growth in the North Country. Some long-term gambling expansion proponents have supported proposals every time they have come along, even as the financial rationale for casinos changed dramatically each time.

Gambling proponents should be honest. If the purpose of expanded gambling is to raise money for the state, how can always changing, purported revenue needs put forth over the years make sense? Without casinos, the state has met its financial challenges over the years.

To some, it sounds like gambling advocates simply want more money, for whatever purpose, for state government to grow and spend more.

This week, readers may find gambling advocates saying the state needs money because we are only taking in the amount of money we budgeted. It is amazing. The Governor and legislative leaders were shooting out press releases on Friday with their views on the revenue shortfall in April.

What happened? The state plan called for income of $284.3 million, but we received just $262.7 million, creating a gap for April of $21.6 million. That is a 7.6 percent shortfall.

While the April numbers need a serious look, for the first 10 months of the current fiscal year, the state took in $1,940.6 million against a budget plan looking for $1,936.7 million, $3.9 million over goal. The difference between plan and results is 0.2 percent to the good. The state, for the year, is right on target. If we are raising the money we anticipated, what is the justification for a new revenue source?

Two important keys here are control of spending and patience in predicting whether or not one month creates a trend. After all, state revenue was over budget in February and March, and we built up a surplus through March of $25.5 million. So, revenue has been meeting our goal for the fiscal year. The question is what May, a month that produces low levels of revenue, and June, which is budgeted to bring in much more — $216 million — will produce. June is the month to keep an eye on.

If revenue is trending down against the budget plan, Governor Maggie Hassan and department heads will need to be prepared to act to slow spending to keep the budget balanced through the second year of the biennium that starts on July 1. Governor John Lynch led the state through the recession with several spending cuts necessary to keep New Hampshire from going into the red when revenues slipped.

Nearing the finish line

With more sun and longer days, most people are happy with the developing weather pattern. Senators are no different, and when some stop by my office, which is next to our caucus meeting room, they often look out the window and comment on how eager they are for summer to fully return.

They know, of course, that we are scheduled to have our final “regular” session on May 15, and then there will be a two-week period of appointing and convening committees of conference to work out different House and Senate positions on bills. The schedule calls for us to meet for our last time in 2014 on June 5, to vote on final committees of conference reports.

The next month will be full of legislative activity as we near the finish line. Having served six terms, I know the hard work and legislative anxiety that lies ahead, but this is all a predictable part of the legislative calendar. There will be plenty to report to readers over the next month.

Bob Odell, a Republican, is the New Hampshire senator representing Antrim, Bennington and Francestown, among other towns.

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