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The casino moment: A panic in the House

May 03. 2014 1:22AM

The slot machines already have legislators addicted. The great number once able to resist the dazzling allure of the spinning tumblers and spitting coins is shrinking. The seductive promise of effortless paydays tempts many legislators into abandoning what they once proclaimed were their firm convictions. And they tell us, after falling under the spinners' spell, that they don't have a problem; thousands of these machines will light the dawn of a bright new day in New Hampshire; all that glitters is gold.

In the House of Representatives on Wednesday, casino gambling failed by a single vote, and that was cast by the acting speaker after the body of the House tied 171-171. Nothing like this has ever been seen in the lengthy fight over casino gambling in this state. A panic is setting in.

On March 13 the House killed another casino bill by 29 votes: 173-144. Almost a month later, on April 10, a judge ruled the state's Medicaid enhancement tax unconstitutional. Suddenly, the budget was several hundred million dollars short. Cue the panic.

Twenty days later, the pro-casino ranks in the House had grown by 27 members. Casino supporters presented their bill as the MET solution. As so many compulsive gamblers know, pulling that lever is easy. Hey, it's free money, they said. It almost worked. Almost.

Next week, the House will vote one more time on the bill. It will be the third House casino vote this year and the fourth this session. One more tug at the lever. Come on, baby, come on!

But the more sober legislators know the money is not free. They know it will be taken primarily from Granite Staters, not tourists. They know that when locals shift their spending to casinos, existing restaurants and entertainment venues will suffer. They know that the government revenue comes with high social costs that will require more government spending to address. Some people will win, many will lose.

"This is not a time to panic and create more damage through unintended consequences," House Finance Committee Chairman Mary Jane Waller said on Wednesday. No, it is not. It is time for careful planning, for finding proven ways to stimulate the entire economy. But that is hard. Pulling that shiny lever is so easy.

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