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Editorial: Moral Choices; N.H. Legislators Weigh Gambling

It has occurred to us that our longstanding opposition to casino gambling in New Hampshire may be regarded as wrongheaded, outdated or even naive. But “immoral”? Several state senators used that term during a debate last week to describe continued opposition to gambling, mostly those who were prepared to overcome their reservations and accept it as a necessary evil.

Give credit, if that’s the proper term, for this inversion of conventional values to Gov. Maggie Hassan, who cleverly built her proposal for the state’s two-year budget on anticipated revenue from the casino she favors, which probably would be developed near the Massachusetts state line. Hassan’s budget calls for increasing spending in several deserving areas, including higher education and mental health services, but depends on $80 million she projects from the licensing fee that the casino operator would pay for the privilege of operating in the state. That assumes that the Legislature will do what it has refused to do for many years: legislatively bless casino gambling.

So when the full Senate last week debated the bill authorizing the operation of a casino, some senators found themselves focusing not on the problems that come with gambling but rather on those that would result from not approving gambling and therefore not having the money to fully fund Hassan’s budget. Rather than fretting that a vote for a casino might be an invitation to the increased crime and social dysfunction long linked to big-time gambling, some senators worried instead that a vote against gambling would be an invitation to an underfunded university system and inadequate mental health care.

“I say the moral question is the fact that our governor has written a budget that restores funding to education and takes care of our most vulnerable and (supports) transportation,” said Sen. Sylvia Larsen, D-Concord. “What does it say about us morally if we do nothing?”

Might we point out that killing this latest gambling proposal — something that may well happen now that it has been shipped to the less friendly venue of the House after being passed in the Senate by a 16-8 vote — would not instantaneously transform New Hampshire from a state that zealously attends to the needs of its most vulnerable residents into one that neglects them? Low-tax, small-government New Hampshire has been robbing Peter to pay Paul for many years — perhaps explaining why the state so often finds itself in court accused of failing to fulfill fundamental obligations. It’s true that the programs Hassan has identified as being worthy of additional spending have recently suffered severe cutbacks and restoring that funding would be particularly welcome. But failure to do so would not imperil the souls of legislators by making them party to an abrupt change in state policy.

Sen. Molly Kelly, D-Keene, who also bought into the notion that rejecting the gambling revenue was morally indefensible, said she would gladly turn to alternative revenue sources, but knows of no other options now on the table or likely to become available.

Yes, in a state that has ruled out a sales and an income tax and has pared most programs to the bone, it’s probably true that there’s no low-hanging fruit. But finding additional revenue isn’t out of the question, at least judging by the increased gas and cigarette taxes now under consideration.

And to the extent that the moral calculus required to evaluate Hassan’s budget must factor in the programs that might be hurt if the state again rejects casino gambling, it must also account for the real possibility that the projected revenue might not be available as quickly as is forecast. That would leave the state with the worst of both worlds — expanded gambling and underfunded programs.

The argument that there’s something immoral about not gambling will always fall somewhere between implausible and bizarre. There is, however, something fundamentally wrong if lawmakers can’t pay for essential programs without settling for tradeoffs that make them squeamish. If lawmakers are genuinely concerned about doing the right thing, they eventually will get around to addressing the larger issue.

Related

Letter: Wrong Way to Raise Money

Monday, March 25, 2013

To the Editor: I agree with your March 20 editorial wholeheartedly: The idea of encouraging increased gambling to pay for higher education in New Hampshire is distressing. I hope that legislators won’t vote against their consciences. Despite what the governor says, we do need an income tax here. Cynthia S. Thompson Lebanon …