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Editorial: Rolling the Dice; Hassan Too Quick to Scoop Jackpot

Gov. Maggie Hassan is apparently betting that legislators will be willing to establish casino gambling in New Hampshire sooner rather than later in order to pay for all the worthwhile policy initiatives she proposed last week.

Indeed, they may be enough to overcome long-standing legislative opposition, but it does not seem to us that the shifting sands of a decades-long debate over expanded gambling afford a solid foundation on which to build the state budget for the biennium that begins July 1.

Even if the Legislature agrees during the current session to establish casino gambling, the time frame for making a decision does not appear to provide adequate opportunity to carefully vet proposals and erect a robust regulatory structure.

First, as to the $11.1 billion state budget that Hassan proposed last week: The new governor’s priorities are hard to argue with. Increasing support for higher education and mental health services is critical, and she has moved quickly to redeem her campaign pledge to do so.

In order to accomplish this and address other priorities in the budget, Hassan relies in part on an increase in the tobacco tax and assumes that the state will realize $80 million in licensing revenue from establishing a single casino.

The assumption may be warranted. It seems as though a Senate vote in favor of a casino is a foregone conclusion. The House, on the other hand, has a long and, in our opinion, distinguished record of opposing expanded gambling in the state, having killed three dozen such bills over the years.

But there are many new members this session, and they may adopt the view that a casino is the lesser of two evils if the alternative is to starve state government of revenue needed to fulfill basic functions. And their votes may well be informed by the knowledge that a recent University of New Hampshire-WMUR poll showed 62 percent support for expanded gambling.

But even if a casino receives a legislative endorsement, it’s hard to see how the $80 million can be realized soon enough to apply to the next budget if the state does its due diligence. Massachusetts, for instance, has yet to see its first revenue from licensing fees more than 15 months after its Legislature legalized gambling at three casinos.

First there would be applications from casino operators that would have to be carefully reviewed. Such a review implies that the state would have in place some authority with the expertise to evaluate them. Moreover, regulations would have to be drafted to govern the whole complicated business of casino gambling.

Background checks could take as much as a year, according to Attorney General Michael Delaney. And as Rep. Mary Beth Walz, D-Bow, told the Nashua Telegraph, setting up a gaming enforcement unit within the state police is “not an overnight proposition.” Walz chaired a House committee three years ago that rejected expanded gambling primarily on the grounds that the state did not have an adequate regulatory structure in place to oversee it.

We remain profoundly skeptical that casino gambling is the right way to fund essential government services or create a dependable source of revenue. But if the Legislature deems otherwise, it must be careful to make sure that all the necessary groundwork has been done before a casino opens. It would be foolish to finally make this leap without the appropriate safety net in place, merely to capitalize sooner on revenue that would flow to state coffers eventually anyway.