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Thursday, March 29, 2012

House rejects proposal to legalize casino gambling

CONCORD – The House of Representatives killed a bill to legalize casino gambling Wednesday, despite an unprecedented lobbying effort that had gotten the support of bipartisan legislative leaders.

The House rank-and-file embraced criticism that the bill, HB 593, would give an exclusive monopoly to four private businesses without any required investment or time line for when the casinos would be built.

“The problem with this bill is that it gives away to the gambling and casino interests a valuable asset that really belongs to the taxpayers of New Hampshire,” said Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare.

Both sides forecast a close vote but ultimately casino gambling opponents won handily, 195-154.

By the numbers, the minority Democratic bloc was decisive, as they opposed casino gambling by nearly a two-to-one margin. House Republicans split almost down the middle.

Critics pounced on the proposed 40 percent tax on casino revenue as the largest tax increase in state history and a fatal flaw for the 86 House Republicans who signed a national pledge not to increase or propose any new taxes.

“It will change the brand of New Hampshire forever,” said Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, a former state prosecutor. “Let’s put this sucker to rest and go about the business we are supposed to do.”

Supporters warned, however, that New Hampshire’s budget and the 600 nonprofits that are dependent on cash from charitable gaming will lose as Massachusetts prepares to license three casinos and a slot barn.

“Doing nothing has a measurable, negative impact on New Hampshire’s state budget,” Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, said. “The much-vaunted New Hampshire advantage is about to become the New Hampshire disadvantage.”

Rep. Steve Shurtleff, D-Concord, said he did not oppose casinos per se but this allowed too much too close together and would ruin New Hampshire’s quality of life.

“I know that if we pass HB 593, the New Hampshire as we know it and we love it will never be the same,” Shurtleff said. “This House has a tradition of marching to the beat of its own drum and now is not the time to succumb to the pressure coming from outside our state.”

The debate had plenty of drama but not much suspense.

Gov. John Lynch had already vowed to veto any casino bill, and backers had no dreams of getting a two-thirds majority needed to overcome that threat.

An alternative plan from Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, for a state gaming authority to own the casino operations failed even worse, 239-104.

After an hour’s debate, the House overwhelmingly voted to kill it, 236-108.

The House Ways and Means Committee spent months fine-tuning the casino plan to let two large and two small casinos share 14,000 slot machines that would generate $140 million in initial fees.

Profits from the slots would have been funneled directly to reduce the state’s two main taxes on businesses.

Rep. Steve Stepanek, R-Amherst, argued that state tax officials concluded this would lower the tax on corporate profits to 4.3 percent from 8.5 percent currently and the tax on business activity to 0.25 percent from its current 0.75 percent rate.

The state budget would have received all profit from gambling at table games in the casinos.

The leader of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling said the strong vote should prompt the casino lobby to give up.

“It turns out this New Hampshire does not want to imitate Massachusetts,” said Chairman Jim Rubens. “They sent a large message to the Las Vegas casino industry to go elsewhere.’’

A consultant for Milliennium Gaming that has an option to turn Rockingham Park into a destination casino said supporters will press on despite this big setback.

“We are disappointed with the House outcome that some continue to block what a significant majority of New Hampshire citizens support: which is thousands of well-paying jobs and hundreds of millions of non-taxpayer revenue brought by permitting casino gaming,” said Rich Killion, for the casino developer.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com; also check out Kevin Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter and don’t forget The Telegraph’s new, interactive live feed at www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/livefeed.