Hassan says casino is key to state's economic future

Gov. Maggie Hassan at Thursday's Eggs & Issues. (JAMIE GEMMITI PHOTO)

CONWAY — Gov. Maggie Hassan said expanded gambling is the solution for the funding challenges limiting New Hampshire's economic and education future in her visit to North Conway on Thursday.

The governor was the main attraction at the Mount Washington Valley Economic Council's Eggs and Issues breakfast and lecture series this week, and she drew an audience of nearly 100. Her remarks Thursday morning centered on the budget, the future of the state, and how crucial the projected $80 million in revenue from one "high-end, highly regulated casino" are to keeping that future bright.

"We cannot balance the budget through efficiencies alone," she told the roomful of legislators, selectmen, local business owners, non-profit leaders and others at the North Conway Grand Hotel. Maine and Massachusetts are both expanding gambling, she said, so New Hampshire will feel the impacts regardless of whether or not it allows gambling. "I believe we should develop our own plan," she said.

"I believe New Hampshire stands at the threshold of a bright new future," she said. "We are as well positioned as any state to lead the country in innovative economic growth that will lift all of our people and define the 21st century."

"But we cannot sit back and wait for the innovation economy to develop," she said, "risking our economic future by allowing other states to create good jobs and attract innovative businesses. We must lead the way."

"I have visited businesses throughout the North Country," she said, "like Burgess Biomass in Berlin, Littleton Coin, and Gorham Paper and Tissue, and so many more across our state that need workers with the right skills. But the drastic cuts made to higher education in the last budget have hurt our ability to train a highly skilled workforce and to give our people the bright future they deserve."

The state must invest, she said, to ensure it has the workforce to attract the employers of the future, and to ensure entrepreneurs have the resources they need to . She pointed to her budget plan as a way to do that.

"It is a budget that begins rebuilding, based on the priorities that are critical for an innovative future," Hassan said, "ensuring that all of our people can receive an education and develop skills for good jobs, attracting and growing cutting-edge businesses, and sustaining our high quality of life by keeping our communities and people safe and healthy."

New Hampshire has to ensure a college education in within the reach of its residents, she said. She has heard stories of students studying in Massachusetts because out-of-state tuition there is cheaper than in-state tuition here. "That is unacceptable," she said.

She has proposed reinstating the bulk of the cuts made to the university system in recent years, she said. "Our budget brings the university system back to 90 percent of where it was before the cuts. And we have not only fully restored funding for the community college system in the first year, but added $3 million in the second."

"In exchange," she said, "the leadership of both the community college and university systems has made it clear that with my proposed budget they could freeze tuition for the next two years."

Her administration is worked with legislators to double the research and design tax credit, she said. "We have sent a message to businesses that might come to our state and to entrepreneurs who might start a new company that the State of New Hampshire will continue to work with them to encourage innovation and invest in our economic future."

But New Hampshire has to do more than invest in education and business. "Our economic success," she said, "will depend on our efforts to maintain our high quality of life as one of the safest states, healthiest states and most livable states in the nation." That will require investment in health care, in mental health, and in public safety.

"As we work to improve the health of all of our citizens, we must address one of our most pressing public health challenges: the need to restore our mental health system," he said. "Right now, many children who are suicidal are stuck for days in emergency rooms because there is nowhere else for them to go. Dozens of people are waiting on a daily basis for critical mental health care. Without proper facilities or treatment, many have been restrained or even sedated. Some leave without care at all, often putting themselves and those around them at risk of harm."

"That's not the kind of state we are," she said. Her budget would begin to take steps to address the situation. "While this won't solve all of the challenges facing our mental health system," she said, "it is beyond time that we make real and meaningful investments in helping those in desperate need of care."

All of those initiatives, however, require funding, which has been hard to find in recent years. Gov. Hassan pointed to a casino as the way to bridge the gap.

"A high-end casino would bring a significant economic boost, creating more than an estimated 2,000 jobs during construction and 1,000 long-term jobs, while attracting new businesses and economic development," she said. "And the revenue from one casino would mean tens of millions of dollars a year that can be used to strengthen our economy and invest in our priorities, such as freezing tuition, strengthening our infrastructure and improving our mental health system, as well as funds to address social costs like substance abuse and gambling addiction."

"With Massachusetts moving forward," she said, "we can no longer pretend that expanded gambling isn't coming to our communities. It is, and if we don't act, revenues from New Hampshire's residents will fund Massachusetts's needs while we still bear the social costs."

"Without the $80 million from one casino," she said, "we have seen that some of most important priorities will be at risk of being cut."

"This is what is at stake right now in Concord," she said. "The true risk we all face is the risk of letting our economy fall behind and allowing the good jobs and growing businesses of the innovation economy to develop elsewhere."

"We must invest in our priorities," she said, "and without funds from one high-end casino I think you will see more cuts to critical investments. We can't let that happen."

After the speech, however, several audience members expressed skepticism about the governor's plan. Couldn't revenue be raised some other way, they asked, like a broad based tax?

"We have an economy structured around not having an income or sales tax," Hassan replied, "and I think that economy has worked well for us."

"I don't want to be at the mercy of Maine and Massachusetts as they open casinos," she said. "I would much rather seize the moment."

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