Down in Concord

“The difference between a politician and a pickpocket is that the pickpocket doesn’t get indignant when you tell him to keep his hands to himself.” — Joseph Sobran

The big news down in Concord is the gambling bill, SB 152. Of course, when I say “big news” what I mean is big political news because for most people anything political is by definition not important. Most of the time even the biggest political news is small potatoes compared to other news.

The special committee for this bill voted by the slimmest margin (23-22) that SB 152 was Inexpedient to Legislate (ITL). The full house will vote Wednesday, May 22, on the committee recommendation. Nobody is predicting which way the vote will go. Democrats are divided – the committee chairman wrote the report opposing the bill; a division chairman wrote the report in support. Republicans are similarly divided. The vote will be bipartisan for and against.

If members were to vote on the general idea of allowing a casino, they might vote yes. But they won’t be voting on an idea; they will be voting on a specific 41-page bill – and opponents think that the words of that bill are badly flawed.

Supporters of the bill claim that SB 152 would authorize “the licensing of one highly regulated, high-end destination casino through a competitive bidding process.” Opponents counter that the claim is laughable:

  1. it won’t be highly regulated because the regulatory process cannot be completed in time for the contract-signing timeline specified in the bill;
  2. it won’t be “high-end” at all because the money proposed to be spent on the casino is less than half what has been required for high-end casinos elsewhere;
  3. the bidding process is anything but competitive because the language of the bill was written by one particular bidder, Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas, and the terms cannot be satisfied by another bidder.

One of the sponsors of the bill stated that casino gambling would be similar to the lottery – there was much opposition in the beginning but it worked out okay. A major difference is that lottery machines are allowed in thousands of businesses all over the state. A casino would be a state-protected monopoly allowed in just one place. The monopoly aspect is one of the main reasons many members oppose the bill. There might be much more support for a bill that said slot machines (and other forms of gambling) were allowed anywhere with the payment of an up-front tax and a share of the take.

Supporters say that the casino would bring in tens of millions of dollars in new revenue. Opponents respond that it would reduce revenue from existing sources. Very few casino customers would come from Massachusetts where there will be bigger and brighter casinos. The customers would be NH citizens spending their money in slot machines instead of at local restaurants, theaters, and other entertainment sources. That would mean less Meals & Rentals tax receipts and less business tax revenue.

They say the casino would create many jobs. During construction it would, but those could very well be jobs for Massachusetts workers. The proposed casino location is very close to the Mass border and workers could easily commute from Mass instead of being NH workers. Later, when the casino is in operation, it would hurt jobs in existing businesses. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston advises that a casino “may have no net ancillary economic impacts. Residents patronizing such casinos may simply substitute gambling for other goods and services.”

Supporters promise that there will be so much extra revenue that it will pay for widening I-93, and will fund school building aid, higher education, uncompensated hospital care, and economic development assistance to the North Country. To which another Democrat at the public hearing responded, “Poppycock.” Even if casino gambling brought in all the money the supporters imagine with none of the costly side effects that opponents fear, it still would not fund all of those. It might do a little here, a little there, but it could not do all of them. It would be roughly a 1% increase in state revenue.

Governor Hassan has been inviting freshmen Democrat representatives for one-on-one chats. If she is like too many politicians she will promise one thing to one representative, something else to another, promising whatever it takes to get the member’s vote, then be unable to deliver on her promises.

In July, 2009, Governor Lynch created a Gaming Study Commission (GSC). In May, 2010, the commission issued a 170 page report. One wonders if the authors of SB 152 ever read that report. In the short time that the House committee has been evaluating the bill, the committee discovered all sorts of problems. They had time enough to identify problems but one month was not enough time to find solutions.

Wise representatives will remind themselves of the old saying “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Rushing to pass a bill in the hope of receiving money quickly, instead of taking the time to fix the bill, is setting up the state for big problems later on.

UPDATE: The House voted 199-164 to kill the bill. I expected a closer vote.

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