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Viewpoint: New Hampshire is the ‘wheeler-dealer’ state

Casino. Just that word invokes visions of glamour and riches for some, and corruption and financial ruin for others. Neither is completely correct, of course. Can the New Hampshire House balance the concerns of those opposed to a casino against the benefits of tourism and increased state revenue?

The foremost concern for casino opponents is problem gambling. While gambling addiction is real, and there are stories of people who went into bankruptcy or lost their home because they couldn’t stop losing money, there was never a chance for the state of New Hampshire to protect its residents from such a problem. Addiction drives its sufferers to seek a source. If heroin isn’t available in their hometown, addicts don’t say, “Oh well, I guess I’ll give it up,” they go wherever necessary to feed their habit.

We have had a lottery in New Hampshire since the 1960s. We have small-stakes casinos for charity. People bet with each other on sporting events, such as the current NCAA Basketball Tournament, or play poker with friends. If that isn’t enough, there are full-scale casinos in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine, and soon in Massachusetts. There will be at least a dozen operating casinos in New England in a few years, whether New Hampshire participates or not. So protecting problem gamblers from themselves, whether you think of it as good public policy or nanny statism, is not possible.

The other argument from casino opponents is that all those casinos will soon be operating, so New Hampshire will gain little benefit in adding another. This argument has more weight. What will make our casino special enough that people will travel distances to visit, will stay in its hotel and eat in its restaurants? What will make them choose it over the others? If all that is built is a “slots barn,” the customers will just be local people who will put their money in a machine for a few hours.

If we choose to allow anything, we should allow a destination casino. There should be enough attraction to the facility that people will travel distances to get there, and have reason to stay awhile. That increases tourism and our reputation as a good place to visit, and pays off in room and meals tax receipts as well as gaming profits. A North Country or Lakes Region casino could be part of a resort, with recreational and sightseeing opportunities to get patrons off the machines to go outside. A Salem casino, which seems to be the frontrunner, could include a hotel and convention center. Las Vegas hosts hundreds of trade shows and meetings each year, where participants enjoy a little gaming as a sidelight, not a focus, of their trip. We have small convention facilities in New Hampshire, but a larger one close to major highways and metropolitan Boston with gambling as an additional attraction would be a great addition to the business and tourism resources of the state.

The most persuasive argument for casino supporters is the money that it would add to the state’s coffers. There are very few places where we can raise money that is given voluntarily, not as a tax or fee. As a freshman legislator, my biggest surprise was seeing New Hampshire’s state budget in detail. The total spent each year exceeds $5 billion. That amount is not surprising for a state with 1.4 million residents, since it includes school support, nursing home care, road construction and maintenance, and many other large expenses. What surprised me is how we pay for it. No single revenue source — various taxes, fees, liquor sales, whatever — is more than 5 percent of the budget. Instead, we fund the state with a patchwork quilt of income.

I grew up in a rural part of northern New York. As a child, we had several people in my town that my dad would call “wheeler-dealers.” A wheeler-dealer was someone who didn’t have a full-time job, but instead provided for their family however they could. They might sell firewood or vegetables in front of their home, cut Christmas trees, make maple syrup, do odd jobs, buy and sell used goods, and many other things to make ends meet. These folks valued the freedom of not working 9 to 5, but in exchange they might struggle to pay their bills at times, or go through periods of feast and famine.

What I realized looking at the state budget, is that we are the wheeler-dealer state. We choose the freedom of not having a broad-based tax, but give up the reliable income that it provides. Instead we cobble together a budget from many revenue sources, and find that paying for everything we should pay for is almost always a struggle. That is certainly what the Legislature is seeing this year.

I would never say that wheeler-dealers don’t provide for their loved ones, or don’t want to pay their bills. Sometimes they just have to go out on a limb to do it. As the wheeler-dealer state, we will always be faced with increased needs and revenue shortfalls since we will likely never pass a broad-based tax. Passing up a significant new revenue opportunity may not make sense, but we should make sure that if we allow a casino, we can point to it in pride, not shame.

Rep. Kermit Williams, a Democrat from Wilton, represents Hillsborough District 4.

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