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March 14. 2013 8:24PM

Fergus Cullen: For casino backers, any argument will do

In a classic skit from Saturday Night Live, Dan Aykroyd and his wife bicker about Shimmer, a product they both love for different reasons. Chevy Chase settles the argument: Shimmer is a floor wax - and a dessert topping! Tastes terrific, and just look at that shine.


So it is with the casino lobby in New Hampshire. No matter what your problem, expanded gambling is the product for you.

When Pease Air Force Base closed in the early 1990s, the gambling lobby suggested a casino in Newington could fill the void. When the feds cut Medicaid enhancement funds a few years later, video gaming would plug the Mediscam budget hole.

Never let a crisis go to waste. For backers of casino gambling, any argument will do.

When the state moved toward universal mandatory kindergarten, allowing video poker at dying dog tracks in Belmont, Seabrook and Hinsdale could pay for it. After the Claremont court decision in 1997, then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen backed "slots for tots" as a means of increasing state aid for education.

A decade ago, one gambling plan earmarked revenue to fund prescription drugs for seniors. With unemployment high during the ongoing recession, longtime pro-casino state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro called his gambling bill a jobs bill.

Now Gov. Maggie Hassan says licensing a casino is the only way for the state to restore cuts to the University of New Hampshire and, capitalizing on Newtown, to pay for mental health programs. Pass casinos or risk a mass school shooting.

They're miracle products, those casinos. They're like Ginsu knives sold on late-night television. After providing enough money to fund schools and employ thousands, they can cut through a tin can and still cleanly slice a tomato - without social costs!

Legislators should be wary of casino lobbyists who act like guys in a singles bar as closing time approaches, using whatever come-on line fits the moment in their effort to take you home.

Watching the deep-pocketed gambling lobby in action has prompted longtime observers to worry that a future casino industrial complex would dominate New Hampshire's volunteer Legislature in short order. These opponents see corruption and crime as intrinsic to gambling, based on the experience of other states. They worry about social costs, which even the governor acknowledges will increase as a result of her plan. She's OK with that, but legislators may be less cavalier about collateral damage.

I describe myself as pro-choice on gambling. If you like to gamble or see it as just another form of entertainment, I'm not going to prevent you from visiting Vegas or Foxwoods. I think buying lottery tickets is for people who are bad at math, so I don't buy them. You can do what you like.

But one can be pro-choice on gambling and still think it's a bad idea to open a casino in New Hampshire.

Allowing one casino, as Gov. Hassan has proposed, is like watching one ant walk across your kitchen counter. That ant is a scout, and there won't be just one ant for long. Were one casino to open, pressure would build immediately for more, either because the first casino is making money or because it isn't making enough. The first gambling addict will be state government, which will be hooked on the money even as returns diminish.

So allowing one casino is to expect slot machines all over the state. One past proposal would have allowed 100 slot machines at any hotel with more than 100 beds. That would fundamentally alter New Hampshire's brand as a family-friendly place to vacation.

"Casinos provide very few high-skill, living-wage jobs and no exportable or value-added product or service. As an economic strategy, casinos take our state in precisely the wrong direction," former state Sen. Jim Rubens told me this week. Rubens leads the volunteer-driven Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling. The only ones who get rich from casinos are the owners. It's the first rule of gambling: The house always wins.

"It's called gambling because it's a gamble," former Gov. Steve Merrill, a gambling opponent, used to say. Gov. Hassan is finding that out for herself.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com.


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