By Mike Marsh
As the debate over our state’s fiscal situation heats up, the pro-gambling side is out in force proclaiming the message that slot machines are the solution. “Everyone wins, including state government!” they announce. “Nobody gets hurt! It’s just another type of entertainment!” All sorts of fanciful financial projections have been tossed around about how much money the state could bring in, if only we would succumb to the siren call of the gambling industry.
A group that styles itself as the “Fix It Now New Hampshire” coalition is pushing for legislation to turn Rockingham Park into a giant slots parlor. They claim the state could get $200 million in new taxes if we did so. As a member of the legislative committee that spent 16 months studying just this issue, I respectfully disagree.
The coalition’s estimate is based on an unrealistically optimistic forecast that has little chance of happening, especially as we are currently in the middle of the worst recession in living memory. Their estimate also assumes Massachusetts will stand by and do nothing in reaction to us, or that the industry won’t push for a lower tax rate once it gets a foothold here. A realistic forecast is the state will get less than $125 million in taxes. And since Bay Staters are expected to be more than two thirds of the gamblers here, our revenues are likely to decrease by at least a half when Massachusetts inevitably responds and sets up its own casinos. Casino gambling will also reduce state revenues from the lottery and the meals and rooms tax.
Bottom line: New Hampshire will likely get less than $65 million in taxes -- far from enough to balance the state budget, and certainly not nearly enough to compensate us for the increased crime, bankruptcies, and family violence that will follow.
This week Rep. Roger Wells, a fellow member of the House committee that studied gambling, wrote an op-ed piece on the subject. In it, he stated that our committee voted 9-8 in favor of a gambling bill. What he didn’t make clear it that this vote was not an endorsement of gambling in our state. A number of the members voted in favor of the bill not because they view gambling as a desirable or even viable revenue source- they don’t- but as a way to make sure that the hard work of the committee to identify what makes for good regulation was retained when the issue came up in the House again. As one member said, “The only thing we can be sure about next term is we are going to see another gambling bill, so we might as well make sure it is one that protects the interests of the people of the state.”
Rep. Wells makes his case for gambling in part because it will generate revenues to help treat pathological gamblers, who he admits will be harmed by casinos. I have a better idea. How about not creating gambling addicts in the first place? One of the things our committee learned in our study last year is somewhere between 1% and 2% of the adults who live within 50 miles of a casino will become gambling addicts. This would be at least 10,000 people in our state. Do we really want to create this much additional misery in the middle of all our economic problems? I sure don’t.
Gambling proponents claim that voters here support gambling “by numbers between 70 to 80 percent”. Hogwash. This is the same magical use of numbers used to forecast how much tax money gambling could bring in to the state. The only study I know of that has looked at this issue, last May's UNH Granite State Poll, said only 41 percent of folks were in favor of gambling.
And finally, the most outrageous bit of pro-slots misinformation; one spokesman said that legalizing slots could reduce our property taxes by a third. Would that this were true! The reality is that even if the rose-colored projection of $200 million in additional tax money was true (it’s not), and even if every penny of this money went to reduce property taxes (it won’t), it would barely make a dent in the total New Hampshire property tax bill, which last year was almost $2.9 billion. In reality, gambling is not likely to reduce your or my property tax bill by a single dollar.
When a lobbying campaign is reduced to arguments like these that are so clearly not true, we should take the time to study what is really going on. And when we do, it is pretty clear that casino gambling doesn’t add up for the people of New Hampshire. It won’t solve our financial woes, and it will create a new class of addicts. We don’t need it.