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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Gambling returns to table this week

Kevin Landrigan

Place your bets: Expanded gambling comes to the House of Representatives this week, and the betting line has never looked better.

Don’t misunderstand; this controversial bill to legalize two large casinos and two smaller ones is no slam dunk. But this legislation has never passed the lower legislative chamber, and Wednesday’s version stands the best chance ever.

Heading into the weekend, supporters privately put the odds of the legislation clearing the body at 50-50. Both sides offered competing luncheons for legislators last week, and it was hilarious to watch the enemy of one camp stroll into the den of iniquity to gauge what they would be up against.

Amherst Republican Rep. Steve Stepanek put out some bold numbers before wavering lawmakers.

The bill makes clear that net state profit from gambling would go directly toward cutting the two main business taxes.

Claiming he had Department of Revenue Administration data from Commissioner Kevin Clougherty, Stepanek said these sites would help cut the Business Profits Tax to 4.3 percent from 8.5 percent.

The more broad-based – and some view as onerous – Business Enterprise Tax would be cut to .25 percent from .75 percent.

“This would be by far the biggest business tax cut in state history,” said Rich Killion, a lobbyist for Millenium, which has an option to buy Rockingham Park to put a massive casino there.

Look for gambling interests to promote this big-time in the ramp-up to the vote. To Killion’s thinking, what changed the dynamic was the move by Massachusetts to legalize three casinos and one slot machine barn at a racetrack.

What has pushed it still further forward is how slowly the Bay State has moved, only last week filling out appointments to a gaming commission.

“The window has not closed for New Hampshire,” Killion said. “We can still run with this and beat them to the punch.”

The Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling disputes those optimistic tax cut findings and mocks House GOP leaders backing this for having stalled the final vote to the last possible day of the 2012 session.

Thursday is crossover, that immortal annual ritual under the Golden Dome when all House bills must be killed or turned over to the Senate, and vice versa.

“Their pie in the sky – promise now, disappoint later – tax revenue numbers will not happen,” said Jim Rubens, executive director of the coalition.

Rubens says the bill will end up yanking down, then putting back up, business tax rates,which is the last thing business owners want: instability in the state tax code.

Here’s a bit of subtle, but brilliant, strategy played by those backing this bill.

Libertarian Republicans in the House put this bill into the breakdown lane this year when they railed against the exclusive monopoly franchise being granted private businesses that would open casinos.

Why can these companies make tens of millions of dollars on high-stakes card games and slots while a homeowner with a $5 poker game could get busted under existing law, they asked. Quicker than you can say five card stud, the House Executive Departments and Administration Committee amended a bill removing the state law and allowing a homeowner to have any poker game at home with no risk of prosecution as long as the owner doesn’t skim off the top of all winnings.

“That’s a pretty big deal,” said Litchfield Republican Rep. George Lambert, who sponsored the request as part of a charitable gaming measure. As indicated here countless times before, this isn’t about getting the job done in 2012.

Gov. John Lynch has vowed to veto this, and no amount of leg-breaking will produce a veto-proof majority in both branches.

But it’s to try to set the table for a new Legislature and a new governor in 2013. Meanwhile, Rubens predicts this gambling gambit will bite the dust.

“I am hearing that the House will vote down HB 593,” Rubens said. “I have no idea whether the vote will be close or lopsided.”

The New Hampshire Liberty Alliance remains opposed to the bill, and its numbers include the same Libertarian-minded GOP members the gambling group has to win if it’s going to hit pay dirt.

Marriage woes

Was that an episode of Keystone Kops or a debate on the repeal of same-sex marriage that was on display in the House of Representatives last Wednesday?

It’s amazing that after 15 months with the seminal social issue of the two-year session, the Republican caucus couldn’t come behind traditional marriage, which, after all, is a key plank of its party platform.

Here’s a shout-out to an impressive lobbying and marketing campaign by all those supporting the law, led by Standing Up for New Hampshire Families, Lew Feldstein, Sean Owen, Tyler Deaton, Scott Spradling, Christine Barrata and Mo Baxley.

They knew their numbers, and despite the lopsided outcome, they sensed this would be close.

Interviews with their group yielded their belief that their high-water mark in the House was 190 votes, and one insider said minutes before the debate that they believed they had a six-vote cushion.

One story not told in all the objective news reporting was that without the ill-fated, nonbinding referendum, this was a pretty close fight. A move to divide the question, separate the referendum from the bill itself, was pushed by those supporting traditional marriage.

All the opponents knew the referendum was like an anvil around this bill (HB 437) and desperately wanted to keep it there.

The move failed 179-173, and sources have confirmed that House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, wasn’t in the room when it occurred. This would have put them within five votes.

Inexplicably, same-sex marriage opponents let it become a division, or unrecorded vote, which means nobody got to know voters’ identity, so O’Brien couldn’t work his magic in the back room and try to win on a second attempt.

At that point, this was a dead bill barely crawling.

As we reported in The Sunday Telegraph, this fight is just warming up, as an aggressive race for governor offers the clearest of choices on the issue. And the national groups, with Freedom to Marry (pro same-sex marriage) on one side and the National Organization for Marriage (for repeal of the law) on the other, will pour hundreds of thousands, if not a few million, dollars into electing the next governor and Legislature that is like-minded.

Gas compromise

Supporters of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative caught a break last week when a move by House leaders to compromise with the state Senate failed. You may recall repeal of RGGI died last year when Lynch vetoed the measure and the Senate sustained that move.

This time, House Science Technology and Energy Committee Chairman Jim Garrity, R-Atkinson, was determined not to repeat bad history.

So, he crafted a compromise amendment close to the proposal of Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, last year.

It would have left RGGI in place unless another New England state left the program first. Then, it would have taken the politics and the discretion out of the hands of state officials who get to dole out millions in pollution allowances that dirty plant owners have to buy.

Given the current floor price for the allowance, the plan had a little over half of the money getting rebated to electric rate consumers. Don’t get overly excited by this gesture; the break would amount to less than $5 a year on the average residential bill.

The rest of the money would have gone to the New Hampshire Saves program and taken all the flexibility and politics out of who gets the allowance booty. But Garrity couldn’t get his cantankerous committee to agree, and they stuck with the original bill (HB 1490). So, just like Right to Work, this sequel to RGGI will end the same way as the last one did.

The House will pass it, the Senate will kill it or let the governor veto it and again make it go away.

Tax cuts

Republican gubernatorial candidate Kevin Smith, of Litchfield, unveiled an aggressive “The Future Is Now” report that offers some significant business tax cuts. Smith picked a bad week and got precious little free press for his plan, which would cut the profits tax to 5 percent and the Business Activity Tax to .25 percent by 2020.

The current taxes are 8.5 percent on profit and .75 percent on business activity.

The best part of that proposal is they wouldn’t be fully implemented until a Gov. Smith was concluding his third term in office. In fairness, he calls for phasing them down so there would be tax cuts in the meantime. Former radio talk show host and two-time congressional candidate Jennifer Horn, of Nashua, got on the Smith bandwagon, while Tom Thomson, son of the late Gov. Meldrim Thomson, was a mega-pickup for primary rival and GOP frontrunner Ovide Lamontagne, of Manchester.

Later this week, Smith is expected to roll out another round of some new, impressive followers for his crusade. Smith visited the North County city of Berlin (native home to Democratic rival Jackie Cilley, by the way) and came away convinced there could be a rebirth there.

“I truly believe with the right amount of economic incentives and perhaps some tax credits, we can bring some high-profile industry back to Berlin,” Smith said. “The buildings, the workforce, the environment and the sheer will of that community to bounce back strong are all there.”

By the numbers

On Monday, the Obama administration is rolling out a new report on the Affordable Care Act and its New Hampshire impact.

Here are some of the pertinent numbers:

Preventive care: No out-of-pocket cost benefit for 434,000 residents.

An estimated 545,000 no longer face lifetime caps on their health care.

Medicare savings: For 13,000, this equaled savings totaling $8.2 million.

Gender gap: Women can be charged 50 percent more for the same coverage as men, and soon, the law will end that price discrimination for 470,000 women and girls.

The Obama re-election campaign has hosted more than 30 listening sessions and roundtable discussions in anticipation of last week’s second anniversary of the law.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@KLandrigan) and The Telegraph’s interactive live feed at www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/livefeed.