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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Panel seeks to kill casino bill

CONCORD – By a razor-thin margin, opponents of a casino scored an important win Wednesday with the 23-22 vote of a House super committee, to recommend killing a bill legalizing bets at a single site with up to 5,000 slot machines and 150 table games.

The bill’s prime author,
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro,
D-Manchester, said he’s still hopeful the membership of the full House, when it meets next Wednesday, will reverse the recommendation of this panel to kill the measure. ...

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CONCORD – By a razor-thin margin, opponents of a casino scored an important win Wednesday with the 23-22 vote of a House super committee, to recommend killing a bill legalizing bets at a single site with up to 5,000 slot machines and 150 table games.

The bill’s prime author,
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro,
D-Manchester, said he’s still hopeful the membership of the full House, when it meets next Wednesday, will reverse the recommendation of this panel to kill the measure.

“Any time you get a committee that is stacked and you only lose by one vote, the real game will be played on the House floor,” D’Allesandro said. “The people of New Hampshire have to let the members of the House what they think.”

Gov. Maggie Hassan worked hard behind the scene to try to move wavering panel members to back the casino and tried to put a positive spin on the outcome.

“I am extremely encouraged by the closeness of today’s committee vote. Even without members having the opportunity to vote on bipartisan amendments, the one-vote margin demonstrates the strong and growing support in the House of Representatives for SB 152,” Hassan said.

House Speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, praised the fair and in-depth attention the panel gave this issue and predicted the final outcome is no slam dunk either way.

“I do think it is going to be closer than people are anticipating,” Norelli said.

Three hours after committee work on 17 possible amendments to the bill (SB 152), state Rep. Patricia Lovejoy, D-Stratham, moved to kill the measure and block those changes.

“There will never be only one casino; there has never been a state with one casino. Proliferation is a given,” Lovejoy said. “It would be a convenience casino, not a destination casino.”

Rep. William Butyinski, D-Hinsdale, said the Legislature decides if there would be more than one casino.

“Proliferation does not necessarily occur. It will occur only if we allow it,” Butyinski said.

Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, came to the Legislature as a casino opponent but challenged foes to come up with a better way to support the state budget.

“Booze, butts and bets are the way we raise our money. We have always done it this way for decades here,” Sapareto said.

The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, said profit estimates from the casino were oversold and social costs in crime, welfare and broken families were understated.

“We cannot guarantee we can get anywhere near the revenue that bidders have promised us,” Almy said.

Rep. Jack Kelley, D-Nashua, said he was undecided but determined that there were too many needed changes and not enough time to thoroughly vet them.

“When you put things together like that piecemeal without any hearings, I am very uncomfortable,” Kelley said. “I am not against gambling in New Hampshire; I am against SB 152.”

Rep. Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, protested that Committee Chairwoman Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, took the move to kill the bill without allowing the members to deal with ways to improve it.

Rich Killion, a spokesman for Millennium Gaming, agreed there was no chance given to improve the bill, even from members of this 45-person panel that spent more than a month working on it.

“What is surprising and unfortunate, however, is the chair’s decision to not allow members to vote upon the thoughtful suggestions and amendments prepared by so many members,” Killion said in a statement. “To have them ceremoniously discarded, without a vote, seems to be against the best traditions of the people’s House.”

Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Gambling, said there was no way to fix this legislation.

“It’s a very bad deal for New Hampshire,” Rubens said. “Without providing certain, stable revenues for either the next budget or the future, SB 152 would do lasting damage to our state. SB 152 would create more new addicts than new jobs and send millions of entertainment dollars that now circulate in our local economy to a Las Vegas operator. That’s bad public policy.”

A group of 12 panel members endorsed an amendment never voted on to beef up the regulatory structure and ban campaign contributions from casino interests to any state candidate for public office.

“We found solutions; it’s not perfect. It’s gotten a lot tighter,” said Rep. Kathi Rogers, D-Concord, who co-authored the change and supports a casino.

Hassan told reporters some of the amendments had merit and House members should seriously consider them.

Rep. Daniel McGuire, R-Epsom, had proposed every liquor license establishment be allowed to have six slot machines and railed at giving a single company this exclusive franchise.

“I believe the original bill is simply an unconstitutional monopoly,” McGuire said.

Anti-gambling advocates maintain New Hampshire’s project would only attract in-state gamblers, not compete with Massachusetts casinos and siphon off as much as $2 million of business for existing hospitality operators in New Hampshire.

A non-partisan study warned that while the license fee money eventually will come in, the state’s annual profit of $91 million would be cut in half by two casinos planned in Massachusetts at sites less than an hour from the border.

Sapareto pointed to other studies that concluded the state could lose up to $70 million of existing lottery and hospitality revenue when the casinos open south of the border.

“The boat is leaving. We can jump to get on the boat or we can sink with everyone else,” Sapareto said.

The Senate-passed bill would split profits from a 25 percent tax on slot betting to road and bridge projects (45 percent), higher education aid (45 percent) and economic development in the North Country (10 percent).

Rep. Gary Azarian, R-Salem, appealed to colleagues, many of whom slammed the GOP-led Legislature that in 2011 cut higher education aid nearly in half.

“Many of you here decried that,” Azarian said. “There is your opportunity to give the money back, and you are not going to do it.”

All of a proposed 14 percent tax on table-game wagering would support state aid to public elementary and secondary schools.

The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies further maintains that social costs and crime would cancel out the net $46 million in profit.

Lovejoy said the House working group estimated social costs would be $27 million to $57 million a year.

Almy said the devastation to families would be much worse if the casino was within state borders.

“The social costs we are looking at are a lot higher if we put something in Salem or worse further into New Hampshire than any effect we are going to have from a casino in Boston,” Almy said.

The state Lottery Commission that would regulate the casino along with the state police has estimated that with 5,000 slots, the profit into state coffers could reach $120 million annually.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).