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Editorial: Rules of the Games; N.H. Works on Casino Regulations

Not to worry, the consultant hired by the New Hampshire Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority told its members: The challenge of enacting effective state regulations for casino gambling should not be that difficult to overcome.

Doubts about whether the state could exercise sufficient oversight over expanded gambling was among the reasons the Legislature narrowly defeated Gov. Maggie Hassan’s proposal to authorize the operation of a single casino. By way of allaying those fears and in preparation for reconsidering the gambling question, supporters revived the dormant oversight committee to draft regulations before lawmakers return in January.

That the consultant would be optimistic about the state’s ability to maintain adequate control of gambling — a recreational activity that is linked to a host of potential problems, including addiction and crime — should not be a huge surprise. For guidance, the committee hired as its consultant WhiteSand Gaming of Nevada — hardly a party that might be expected to be overly sensitive to potential problems or to lowball the chances of overcoming them.

Nevertheless, Maureen Williamson, the WhiteSand Gaming official who appeared before the authority last week, offered some useful direction. With so many states having already taken the step that New Hampshire is considering, there is no need for the state to reinvent the wheel, she said; it could liberally borrow from other states that have experience in regulating casinos, making adjustments to “tailor something that really works for New Hampshire.”

A key requirement to effective regulation, she told the committee, was to make sure to maintain a clear separation between licensing authority and enforcement of gambling laws and regulations. If she had wanted to hammer home the point, she could have phrased it more starkly by urging committee members to do exactly the opposite of the state Liquor Commission, which not only is in charge of both licensing and enforcement of the liquor business but combines those two functions in the same division.

Williamson identified a number of measures that might discourage problem gambling, including credit card limits and prohibitions on certain games that create the illusion that players are coming closer to a hitting a jackpot than they really are.

All of which sounds perfectly reasonable, but still leaves open the question of whether the state can exercise any more self-control than the average slots player. It’s worth noting that just a week or so before Williamson appeared before the committee, the officials who run Mega Millions, the lottery game sold in 43 states, announced that they were making changes to boost ticket sales. Extensive research convinced them that alterations that would generate larger jackpots and induce players to spend a little extra for the chance to score secondary prizes would be winners — at least for the states hoping to generate more revenue. Big jackpots attract the sort of interest that induces ever-larger numbers of people to buy tickets, even as those bigger payoffs decrease their chances of winning.

And that is the dynamic that we assume any state would find it difficult to address via regulation — the fact that the state profits from others’ losses, and that the constant need to find money to fund services makes state officials ever more creative in figuring out how to remove larger sums from people’s pockets. In a perfect world, that might not be reason for concern. People would spend no more than they could afford for the sheer enjoyment of taking a chance. But there are far too many people who can’t gamble responsibly and spend more than they or their family can afford — with the state playing the enabler and profiting from their misfortune.