One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.
–Robert Frost, “An Old Man’s Winter Night”
From my perspective, Gov. Hassan’s proposed budget does a good job of beginning to restore funding to necessary programs. While I’d ideally like to see nearly all the funding cut over the past two years restored, with additional funding for education, as well as investments in infrastructure and the economy, I agree with the governor when she says that we can’t do everything all at once. Bill O’Brien, in his inimitable hubris, didn’t seem to recognize that when he was moving legislation in the opposite direction. The governor’s budget sets the groundwork for restoring responsible and adequate funding to programs vital to residents of New Hampshire, as well as to improving the economy.
But there’s something that deeply bothers me about the budget, and it’s not the fault of the governor or any other individual, but something much more systemic and intrinsic in the way New Hampshire crafts its budgets, raises its revenue, and attempts to build its economy. For far too long, New Hampshire has relied on gimmicks like cheap booze and cigarettes, fireworks sales, and a lack of a certain taxes to entice people across the border and fill the coffers of state government and border-lining businesses. Rather than promote and invest in its scenic beauty, educated workforce, relatively low cost-of-living, and its collection of bustling downtowns and villages, many in New Hampshire have essentially portrayed the state as a one-trick pony, relinquishing all policy decisions and revenue structure to the now-faltering “New Hampshire Advantage.”
That not only sells the state short–it has also led to the transformation of vast swaths of the state. New Hampshire has marred its natural beauty with border-hugging cigarette discounters and fireworks outlets, lined its highways with liquor stores, and populated border towns with mega-malls at the expense of once-vibrant downtowns. It has built part of its revenue structure and economy–and a huge part of its political culture–on cheapening the state to a place where you can “sin” for cheap.
It’s a pattern that cheapens and transforms the state, and it really leaves the state at a disadvantage. If Massachusetts, say, lowers its sales tax, then retailers and tax receipts along the border will suffer. So a good chunk of the economy, and thus the tax revenue, and thus the ability of New Hampshire to invest in the state, its people and its economy, is really dependent upon factors outside its border, and outside its control. Over the past two years, the O’Brien-led legislature brought the idea of reactionary policy to a new level in the state, but the fact is that relying so heavily on outside forces makes New Hampshire’s policy-making inherently reactionary.
So now, New Hampshire needs to raise revenue to restore vital services and pave the way for a more robust economy, and Massachusetts is planning to build a series of casinos within easy driving distance of New Hampshire. New Hampshire has debated the merits of casinos for years, and it has always rejected them. Personally, I am fairly ambivalent about them, but I think any discussion of such a major policy should be based on what we want our state to be like–do we want to be a destination for gambling? will a casino compliment New Hampshire’s other attractions? will casinos help the larger economy? and so on–rather than a pressing need for greater revenue and the fear that New Hampshire might be missing out on its slice of the gambling pie.
It’s not the fault of Gov. Hassan, and she made no secrets about her support for casino gambling in her campaign. I really don’t know how I feel about casinos, and I don’t fault her for including one in her budget. But rather than debating the merits of a casino and what it would mean for our state, the argument for a casino rests on a need for revenue, and the concern that a casino across the border would leave New Hampshire with all the ills and none of the benefits of a casino. So once again, New Hampshire is building a revenue structure and a sizable portion of its construction by reacting to decisions made in other states.
For how long can this be sustainable? For how long can New Hampshire continue to play catch-up? For how long can New Hampshire ignore the fact that people choose where to live, visit or work based not primarily on low taxes or cheap cigarettes, but on the quality-of-life and amenities offered?