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Kathy Sullivan: Gambling already is widespread and popular here

March 04. 2013 5:28PM

New Hampshire is watching the state Legislature debate whether, and how, legalized gambling should be expanded. Count me in as one voter who supports a bill to have an open bidding process to permit a high-end, rigorously regulated casino in New Hampshire.

Opposition to expanded gambling is driven by bad information, lack of information, and bias. One example is the notion that licensing a casino will destroy the New Hampshire we all love. This fails to recognize that gambling already is occurring in our state, and the New Hampshire we love is still here.

Non-lottery, on-premise gambling is a significant industry. According to the fiscal year 2012 annual report of the Racing and Gaming Commission, we have 11 commercial bingo halls and 11 "games of chance" facilities that feature poker rooms and/or table games. Combined, Lucky 7 ticket sales, bingo sales and games-of-chance betting totaled about $155 million in 2012. This represents about an 18 percent growth over the last four years.

There also is video gambling. "Entertainment only" video poker machines are so profitable that the City of Manchester is able to charge a license fee of $2,000 for a machine. A casino with video gaming will put a dent into illegal gambling operations based on these machines.

Gambling opponents point to the "social issues," particularly gambling addiction. Those issues are already here. In addition to the volume of legal and illegal gambling occurring in New Hampshire, a number of residents gamble outside the state. According to a 2009 New Hampshire Center for Public Policy report, 21 percent of the state's residents had gambled at a casino in the prior 12 months. More than half of state residents (56 percent) had engaged in some form of gambling, including casinos and lottery tickets.

Gambling opponents are not realistic about the extent of gambling by New Hampshire residents both inside and outside the state. As a result, they are forcing us to carry the burdens of legal and illegal gambling without the economic benefits of legal expanded gambling, which could address those issues. When Massachusetts opens its casinos and causes the smaller "charitable" New Hampshire facilities to close, we will be deprived of what little revenue we receive from those venues, worsening the fiscal downside of not licensing a casino.

Opponents are pointing to a new Public Policy report to support their inaccurate claims that gambling revenues are not reliable and are down across the county. That less-than-in-depth report, however, cherry picks selected data and fails to provide statistics that point to the opposite conclusion. The report makes the assertion that gambling revenues are down nationally, relying on data from Las Vegas, Atlantic City and New Hampshire lottery ticket sales. Its conclusions flow from that faulty assertion.

Data from the American Gaming Association, which surveys casinos across the country, shows a 1 percent increase in 2010 and a 3 percent increase in 2011. A 2012 University of Massachusetts Center for Policy Analysis study of nine Northeastern states concludes that casino gaming in the Northeast is likely to show continued significant growth over the long term.

In addition, the New Hampshire Public Policy report limited its review of Granite State gambling revenues to an approximate $25 million drop in lottery ticket sales from 2007 through 2011. It failed to note that revenues from table games at "charitable" gambling facilities grew in that same period, from about $45 million in 2008 to $79 million in 2012, a growth of $34 million. Legislators should be careful in relying on the report's conclusions, given its faulty underpinnings.

Another source of opposition stems from those who view gambling disdainfully. For many Granite Staters, however, gambling is a form of entertainment, as legitimate and enjoyable as attending a wine tasting or a concert, and probably more fun than attending a Red Sox game these last two seasons. I know from personal experience, having gambled in Connecticut, Las Vegas and other locations.

Though it may not be everyone's entertainment of choice, the personal biases of a minority should not stand in the way of the economic benefits of a casino to New Hampshire.

If this were an election, gambling would win in a bipartisan landslide. According to the most recent UNH Survey Center poll, 62 percent of those surveyed support expanded gambling, including a strong majority of Democrats at 59 percent and Republicans at 67 percent. Legislators should listen to their constituents on this one, not to opponents who are giving them incomplete or wrong information.

Kathy Sullivan is a Manchester attorney and member of the Democratic National Committee. She was chairman of the state Democratic Party from 1999-2007.

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