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Another View -- Molly Kelly: New Hampshire needs gambling money to fund its basic needs

March 28. 2013 8:19PM

The state Senate recently voted for a bill to restore funding for education, provide mental health treatment and care, repair our roads and bridges, and expand economic development. The funds come from licensing a casino in New Hampshire - an approach that has generated some mixed feelings for me and for many who care about the future of our state. I voted for the bill, and here's why.

First, I am not a proponent of gambling. But I am a strong proponent of restoring the funding that is reflected in our governor's proposed budget. I can't emphasize enough how critical these funds are to my priorities and the priorities that I hear about every day from the people I represent.

Funding public higher education so that all of our state's young people have an equal opportunity; providing funding for mental health programs for those individuals and families who are suffering today without any hope for a better life; growing our economy with an educated and skilled workforce and real investments in infrastructure and fostering innovation; making sure hospitals and other providers don't close their doors to children and their parents due to uncompensated care: all of these are not only top priorities, but a direct expression of my deepest-held values.

So my vote was a vote to have the resources to provide an equal opportunity for a life with dignity and hope for all the people, not just some of the people. This is what the citizens of our state deserve.

I have heard arguments from those who object to a casino within our borders under any circumstances. Some question the revenue that will be generated, others the social costs of expanded gambling, and others see this as a pure moral issue. These are passionate arguments from people who truly care about our state and our citizens, and I respect those who make them. Let me briefly address each.

In terms of revenue, our best nonpartisan analysis from the legislative budget office says that a casino would generate $130 million per year, on top of the $80 million we get in this biennium. And this would be money we won't otherwise have. The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, in offering facts on both sides of the argument, estimated that 2/3 of the visitors to the casino would be from out of state, and therefore would be bringing in new dollars.

In terms of social costs from gambling addiction, these are real and painful. But the problem is, they are already here, and they are about to increase. Make no mistake, with our 12 licensed charitable gaming operations and simulcast horse and dog races, gambling is here, and it is a massive $150 million annual industry even without counting our state lottery.

What's more, Massachusetts is about to license three new casinos right over our border. The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies - again, with no bias toward casino gambling - has said that these new casinos mean that we will lose $75 million a year if we do nothing at all.

In short, we are about to absorb all of the social costs of casinos, plus the economic ones, with none of the revenues. The bill that I voted for at least provides tough new regulation on gambling instead of the lax system we have now, as well as millions of dollars specifically for addition prevention and treatment.

Finally, let me address the moral question. Everyone must judge for himself or herself on this question, and I respect different points of view. I simply point out that turning our young people away from access to an education because they cannot afford it is not only immoral, but very bad for our economy and for the future of our state. Keeping people with mental illness stuck in emergency rooms or even worse, shunted to prisons, is wrong. As with most difficult questions in life, there are real considerations both ways.

The bottom line is that our needs are real and profound. They won't go away if we neglect them; they will get worse, cost us more, and hurt our people more deeply. If there were other sources of revenue on the table that might come even close to meeting our needs, I might support them too.

So my vote was a vote to move forward, to try to help as many of our citizens and business as possible, and to uphold the values of opportunity, equality and compassion that our state should always reflect.

Sen. Molly Kelly is a Democrat from Keene.

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