Editorial: Still a Bad Bet; N.H. House to Vote on Casino Bill

Casino gambling is likely to come up for a vote in the New Hampshire House this week, and it appears to have a better chance of passing than in any of the numerous previous attempts. Although a special House committee narrowly voted last week to recommend killing a bill that would allow a single casino in the southern part of the state, a number of other forces are working in its favor. First-term Gov. Maggie Hassan has been a strong advocate. The Senate passed the measure by a solid majority. The state is, as usual, desperate for revenue, and Hassan has cannily linked some worthy proposals for increased spending to the additional revenue that would come from expanded gambling.

Most critically, perhaps, is the seeming inevitability of it. In New England, casino gambling has metastasized from its original outpost in Connecticut and spread to all southern New England states and northward into Maine. The only bordering state that doesn’t have or won’t soon have a casino is Vermont. New Hampshire might reasonably wonder if continuing to abstain doesn’t, at this point, amount to a hollow gesture: The state accomplishes little more than forcing in-state gamblers to travel and enrich whichever state provides the games and ambience they seek.

Nevertheless, we believe keeping New Hampshire casino-free still serves the state’s best interests.

For starters, the revenue jackpot is much less compelling than it ever was. A recent report by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies suggested that predicting future gambling revenue from a New Hampshire casino is more guesswork than science, but a number of factors argue for lowering expectations. Even as competition for gamblers has intensified, spending on gambling has been on the decline nationally. In New Hampshire’s case, competition from the three casinos that Massachusetts plans to build will significantly limit the state’s potential take. And as an economic development tool, the report found, gambling is a bad bet: Most jobs it will create are low-paying, and may simply replace the ones it destroys by undermining other enterprises in the recreation industry.

And there are legitimate questions about the wisdom of establishing a new revenue source if the money produced is simply going to be sucked up in dealing with the problems created at the same time. The costs of dealing with gambling addiction and gambling-related crime are real, and they remain a factor worth considering even if neighboring states are exporting some of the problem by operating casinos frequented by New Hampshire residents. As was noted in an op-ed published on this page Saturday by Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, proximity is key. Problem gambling increases in the immediate neighborhood of a casino. An operation on this side of the stateline would necessarily burden the state with a more concentrated portion of social ills.

And would a single casino in the southern part of the state that operates in the shadow of the Massachusetts casinos ever generate anything close to what the state earns from tourists who are drawn by the splendor of its lakes and mountains? Of course not, and presumably the state would never want it to. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine how the presence of gambling could detract from the state’s image as a place where people enjoy the outdoors and engage in healthy activities.

With casinos becoming more the norm than the exception, it seems to us that the state’s more promising strategy is to serve as a destination that’s genuinely different. In this matter, New Hampshire’s inclination to set its own course will serve it well.