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Column: To Game or Not to Gamble

My historical position on gambling had been “No” and I’m not about to change that right now. If you want a very good list of reasons we should not do gambling as a revenue for state government, especially slot machines, go to NoSlots.com.

My distaste for the whole gambling/gaming question has to do with other side issues that I wish folks would think about. These are not questions of morality, rather questions of practicality.

First, we’d never get the kind of money they say we would off gambling. With Massachusetts planning a number of casinos, the market is well on its way to saturation, our one “high-end” casino would be dwarfed by the others, and we’d only be soaking our local residents. The quick cash from licenses? Maryland tried that a few years ago, putting several licenses up for bid. Two years later, only half of them had sold. If we did have a casino, it would cannibalize surrounding businesses, diminishing revenues from room and meals or business taxes.

We already have a lot of gambling in this state, particularly charitable gaming and the state lottery. Heck, we were the first state to have a lottery! It was going to save our schools. Yes, the lottery has put $1.5 billion into NH education over 50 years. Except that we now spend over $3 billion in one year alone to education our K-12 kids.

Gambling is no cash cow. The social costs attendant to gambling would quickly swamp any revenue gains at the state level, leaving us with the ever-constant structural deficit. Gambling will never work to bring down your property taxes, which are now two-thirds of the taxes collected in this state. My biggest worry is that we won’t realize this until we pass some form of casino/slots gambling and have to live with the consequences.

As public policy, we should try to establish tax revenue streams that are reliable, low in rate, just and equitable, responsible, appropriate, and adequate. Our state’s reliance on “sin tax” revenues — tobacco, alcohol, lottery — are fairly consistent, but not adequate to the jobs we need to do in the state. They are also voluntary. Are you a responsible citizen, buying lottery tickets every week to support education?

Let’s contrast gambling to the other current hot tax topic, the gas tax increase. We all drive our cars, we drive on the roads, we buy gasoline to run our cars, we pay the tax on gas to fund the roads. The gas tax is a very appropriate for its purpose. It’s just been woefully inadequate for quite some time. Twenty years ago the gas tax was last raised to the current level of 18 cents per gallon. The price of gas has tripled in that time; so has the price of asphalt, another petroleum product. With cars getting much higher mileage, and recurring spikes in the price of gas pushing down driving times, we end up with less revenue.

Some numbers to put this is perspective: The Ledger-Transcript showed a picture of the price of gas in 1991 at about $1.20 per gallon. The 18-cent tax then represented 16 percent of the cost of gasoline. Now gas is about $3.60 (plus or minus 20 cents); 18 cents is 5 percent of the cost of that gas. A tax increase of 4 cents on that gallon is about +1 percent. If the whole proposed increase of 12 cents happened right now, the gas tax total of 30 cents would be 9 percent of the cost of gas, well below the 1991 level. But all of that increase would go right back into the NH economy, doing the road and bridge infrastructure work we desperately need; 12 percent going back to municipalities and offsetting property taxes; and 70 percent going to private construction contractors in the state, who would employ that welder I heard about who’s waiting tables.

Many say gambling is just another kind of entertainment, and folks should be able to do that. Fine, but if you really want to be entertained, go to a sports event, a rock or other music concert, live theater, the motor racetracks — something where people are putting forth their best effort and skills to show you a really good, exciting time, doing something productive.

To really support the NH economy, and sensible tax revenues, drive to that event.

Rep. Jill Shaffer Hammond, a Democrat from Peterborough, represents Hillsborough District 24.

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