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Column: N.H. Would Lose a Casino Border War With Massachusetts

Etna

With electronic gambling machines and casinos now operating in 40 states and many nations, academic gambling researchers are in clear agreement about several impacts. The availability of video slot machines and casinos increases problem gambling and gambling addiction. Addiction rates approximately double among people living within 30 minutes’ drive time of a casino and quickly fall off beyond that radius. These addicts and problem gamblers impose additional public and private costs in the form of increased crime and criminal justice, welfare, lost workdays, debt and bankruptcy, divorce, family violence and suicide.

The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies found that a single Salem casino, as proposed in the casino bill coming to a vote in the New Hampshire House this Wednesday, would end up creating higher costs for New Hampshire than the amount of tax revenue it would generate.

Casino proliferation is another irresolvable problem. No state has one casino. The House Joint Committee that for the past month studied SB152 — the single casino bill that passed the Senate — was unable to identify any means to limit casinos to just one. The Joint Committee also found no means to prevent casinos from cannibalizing jobs and revenues from local business and nonprofits by using monopoly slot machine profits to undercut prices for rooms, meals, drinks, entertainment and conference services, thereby draining hundreds of millions of consumer dollars from New Hampshire’s local economy.

Casino backers have largely acknowledged these problems and reframed casinos as a tactic in beggar-thy-neighbor economic border warfare. A Salem border casino, they claim, would draw most of its customers from Massachusetts, allowing New Hampshire to collect taxes from Massachusetts gamblers and to export the social costs of gambling addiction and local business cannibalization back to Massachusetts.

This argument fails because the likely Boston casino, for which mega-casino developers Wynn and Caesar’s are competing with $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion proposals, will outclass the proposed Salem casino by three or more times in investment dollars, amenities and location. Casino economics experts have repeatedly testified to the New Hampshire Legislature that gamblers almost always patronize a closer, more amenity-rich casino over a more distant vanilla casino. This means that about two-thirds of gamblers at a Salem casino would live in New Hampshire and that two-thirds of the economic damage would be inflicted on New Hampshire.

If New Hampshire does not legalize casino gambling, it is true that more New Hampshire residents would gamble at a Boston casino, bringing the consequential costs back to New Hampshire households and communities. But few New Hampshire residents live within the key 30-minute drive time radius of the likely Boston casino or any of the other three potential Massachusetts gambling locations. By unilaterally declaring a truce in this incipient casino border war, most of New Hampshire’s population would be insulated from these costs.

In keeping with the pattern seen in other casino border wars — such as in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Ohio, New Jersey, Illinois and Indiana — if New Hampshire were to allow a Salem casino, Massachusetts would likely retaliate by allowing a casino in nearby Lawrence. Because Massachusetts has the larger population and the better locations, it will win this race to the bottom under any scenario.

Millennium Gaming, the biggest lobbying force behind SB152, claims that its proposed Salem casino will bring jobs to New Hampshire. In fact, most casino jobs will be low wage and will go to out-of-state residents. Millennium admitted during House committee hearings that, of its projected 2,036 operations jobs, only 15 to 20 percent would be high-wage, and those would be filled by skilled casino workers from places such as Las Vegas. Most casino jobs pay well below living wages. Two-thirds of the potential workers for these low-wage jobs are Massachusetts residents, largely from the Lawrence/Lowell areas, which have unemployment rates significantly higher than southern New Hampshire’s. Nothing in SB152 guarantees that casino jobs would go to New Hampshire residents or, for that matter, even offers any incentives for keeping jobs in state.

A smarter strategy for New Hampshire is to build on our natural, unreplicable advantages. Over decades of careful work, New Hampshire has earned its clean, healthy, low-crime, family-friendly image, which continues to attract visitors, new residents and new job-creating businesses. Casino marketing would damage this advantage, overwhelming by several times all existing state and private spending on tourism promotion and brand building. For this reason, the tourism-dependent New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association opposes casinos and the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce board voted unanimously last week to oppose SB152.

The Granite State Coalition thanks the Upper Valley legislative delegation, nearly all of whom oppose casino legalization. We urge the New Hampshire House this Wednesday to support the Joint Committee’s recommendation that SB152 be defeated.

Jim Rubens, an Etna resident, is chairman of Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling and a former Republican state senator.