Hassan's High-Stakes Bet

New Hampshire Governor Hassan assumes funds for casinos



Illustration by Peter Noonan

In February Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan released her first proposed two-year state budget. While she had served in the state Senate and helped craft budgets, this time around she would make the big decisions and, in so doing, set a tone for how she would be seen politically in the state.

As former Gov. John Lynch put it at a Dartmouth College lecture soon after Hassan was sworn in, she would be judged “not in the words” she promised on the campaign “but in the deeds” of governing. This was her first chance to govern in deeds.

In her first public run for office a decade ago she backed the concept of an income tax. She ran again, but this time opposing an income tax and winning. As a state senator, Hassan was an activist on everything from gay rights to health care to the environment. However, when she ran for governor she suggested she would operate as a caretaker governor in the model of Lynch, who left office as the most popular governor in state history.

With this budget it appears that Hassan has chosen not to function as a liberal or centrist caretaker, but picked a third way: a risk taker.

Hassan balanced her first state budget proposal by assuming there would be $80 million coming to the state for casino licensing fees. If you read that and wondered where in New Hampshire there is a casino to pay those fees, then you are onto something. There isn’t one. But that didn’t stop Hassan from counting her chickens before there were even any eggs to be hatched.

"If it works, she’ll find a way to fund campaign promises without an income or sales tax."

Hassan’s gamble is that, though the state’s House of Representatives has never passed a bill allowing casino gambling, even after it has been proposed routinely for 25 years, she can convince enough of her friends in the Democratic-controlled House that this year it must pass. Also, assuming at least one casino is allowed, is there actually a gambling company out there willing to pay $40 million a year for a license in such an uncertain environment?

If this high-stakes bet does not play out perfectly to plan there are consequences. For Hassan, a suggestion of incompetence so early on would damage any ambition she might have for challenging US Sen. Kelly Ayotte in 2016. For those concerned with public safety, without the gambling revenue there could be 30 fewer state troopers. For those going to college, tuition at state universities could go up. With pending lawsuits involving state hospital payments, mental health services and conditions at the state’s women’s prison in Goffstown — all requiring resources provided in this budget — there’s a lot riding on the Legislature legalizing a casino and the money starting to flow right away.

On the upside, if it works, then Hassan will find a way to fund campaign promises without instituting an income tax or sales tax.

Politicians are generally risk-averse, but New Hampshire’s newest governor embraces risk not just for herself, but for the state she has just begun to lead.

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