November 20, 2008

With Budget Shortfall Looming, Will Gambling Expand?
Supporters Say Video Slots Could Help State’s Bottom Line

CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire lawmakers have routinely rejected allowing video slot machines in the state, agreeing with critics who say it will ruin the state’s quality of life. But with a budget shortfall looming, state leaders could be more willing to roll the dice on expanded gambling.

The state budget is at least $150 million short this fiscal year, leading lawmakers to consider budget cuts and new sources of revenue. The idea of bringing in video slot machines has been raised many times before, and supporter Sen. Lou D’Allesandro said that another proposal is likely to be made.

“One hundred percent are the odds the bill will be coming forward,” D’Allesandro said.

Video slots would continue a growing gambling trend in New Hampshire. What used to be simply charity bingo has grown to include charity poker, which is so popular that it’s played at local restaurants. There’s also track betting and the state lottery.

Number games and scratch tickets have been a source of revenue for decades. Last year, the lottery brought in almost $80 million to fund education. Gambling supporters like D’Allesandro said that it’s a good time now to add video slots.

“There is more gambling going on in New Hampshire than ever before, and it’s all around us,” he said. “So, we might as well take advantage of it and bring tax revenue to the state of New Hampshire. Bring people the opportunity to play in a comfortable environment.”

While exact plans vary on how much the state would control, D’Allesandro said he would like to see regulated slots added to the four major tracks at Rockingham, Seabrook, Belmont and Hinsdale.

Estimates show it could bring in $150 million to $250 million a year for the state coffers.

But critics say don’t be fooled, claiming that it’s too good to be true.

“This is not a way to grow the economy,” said Jim Rubens of Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling. “It’s not a way to balance the budget.”

Rubens noted that existing casinos such as Foxwoods in Connecticut are slumping, so revenue expectations should be lowered. He also said video slots will boost gambling addiction and crime and end up costing the state more in the end when it has to pay for the fallout.

“These casinos put the state in the business of fostering and sanctioning addiction, then prey upon those addicts to get money,” Rubens said.

Those same fears existed in the 1960s when New Hampshire first started the Sweepstakes lottery.

“I look back in the 1960s when we passed the lottery and they said New Hampshire would turn to crime,” said Sen. Theodore Gatsas, a supporter of expanded gambling. “In the past 40 years, it’s been a great revenue source for New Hampshire and education.”

Other states have tried increasing revenues through gambling. Pennsylvania approved video slots two years ago, and seven locations offering slots are up and running. They have produced an extra $2 billion tax revenue so far.

Gaming officials said that calls for gambling addiction services have jumped, but they said they haven’t seen an increase in major crime tied to the casinos.

“I think most experts will tell you the crime factor has not materialized as some thought in Pennsylvania,” said Doug Harbach of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. “Really petty crimes are being seen in the casinos.”

At Rockingham Park in Salem, officials said expanded gambling would boost their declining racing business. General ManagerEd Callahan said that it’s a good way to siphon money from other states because, he believes, most gamblers would come from Massachusetts.

“If you could generate $100 million to $150 million, whatever it might be, most is coming from out of state,” Callahan said.

A recent University of New Hampshire poll showed that 68 percent of residents don’t mind expanding gambling. Gov. John Lynch has said he’s waiting to see this year’s plan before making a decision.

CNHT is against expanded gambling.