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State House Bureau

January 25. 2014 10:57PM

This week, the question arises again: Will New Hampshire embrace casino gambling to help pay its bills?

With Massachusetts casinos on the doorstep, New Hampshire lawmakers face a jousting match between advocates for expanded gaming and those who believe it would not be worth the harm it could cause.

Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, will once again roll out a proposal, this one Senate Bill 366, to the Senate Ways and Means Committee Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.

Over the years, the Senate has passed casino gambling bills and the House has killed them. Last year was no exception, as the House killed Senate Bill 152 after the Senate passed it, 16-8, with the backing of Gov. Maggie Hassan.

D'Allesandro was not deterred and did what he has done for more than 15 years: come back with another bill that includes changes to address concerns raised the year before.

"The basic sentiment was the bill passed last year was not that bad," D'Allesandro said. "If we had passed it, we would have had something in place right now.

"If we continue to dissect legislation to make it better," he said, "we never get legislation."

While the number of video slot machines, 5,000, and table games, 240, proposed in the latest bill are not much different from the numbers proposed last year, D'Allesandro's new bill would split them between two casinos.

"We heard last year the bill was tailored to one entity for the one license," he said, "and now there are two casinos to be awarded by open bid."

One casino would have 3,500 video slot machines and 160 table games, the other would have 1,500 video terminals and 80 table games. The license for the larger casino would cost $80 million, the license for the smaller casino $40 million. The application fees would also be different, $1.5 million and $750,000.

A gaming commission would oversee all gaming in the state, but it would grow out of the Lottery Commission, with different divisions overseeing casinos, the lottery, and racing and charitable gaming.

Another change would be the tax the state would collect on the video machines, going from 30 percent to 25 percent, but the new version would also collect 5 percent for the communities most affected by the sites - 3 percent for the host and 2 percent for the surrounding towns - and 1 percent for problem gambling programs.

Of the state money collected, 45 percent would go to the state's 10-year highway plan, 45 percent to higher education and 10 percent to economic development. The economic development portion would be split, with 5 percent going to the North Country and 5 percent going to the rest of the state.

The 14 percent tax on table games remains the same. That money would go into the Education Trust Fund, which helps pay for state education aid to school districts.

Once both casinos are up and running, D'Allesandro said, the state should see about $190 million in revenue a year.

"We have a base of support in the Senate that remains pretty constant," D'Allesandro said. "A couple of things have happened, and we need more money."

He points to the settlement over the state's mental health system, which will require about $30 million, and staffing needs to expand the bed capacity at New Hampshire Hospital for patients who now wait in hospital emergency rooms for services.

"Anyone who says we don't need the money, I think, is crazy," D'Allesandro said.

But he acknowledges he has been at this for a long time and calls himself the Larry Pickett of casino gambling. Pickett proposed the state lottery five times over a decade before lawmakers finally approved it.

"I'm not quite as successful," said D'Allesandro, "but I've gotten it through the Senate a few times."

He noted that the casino proposals in Massachusetts are gaining business support, something he acknowledges expanded gambling has not done in New Hampshire.

D'Allesandro said he hopes he can change the equation this time around, noting the state needs jobs.

"We've got a long way to go," he said, "but I'm going to give it my best shot."

In the past, the House has waited to see what the Senate did with casino gambling, but not this year. After SB 152 was defeated, Hassan sought a committee to propose a regulatory scheme for the state to oversee casino gambling to answer the critics who said they wanted oversight in place before voting to expand gambling.

House Bill 1633 is sponsored by three members of the Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority, which developed the regulatory framework for casino gambling and other gaming operations, such as the state lottery, charitable gambling and horse and dog racing.

A public hearing has not been scheduled for the bill, so at this early stage in the session, D'Allesandro's plan will receive the attention. How much attention? We'll see whether the big boys, pro and con, turn out for the public hearing or they keep their powder dry until the House bill is out and ready for action.

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Forget about the personal effects of sparking a joint; lawmakers want to know how much legalizing marijuana could affect the state budget.

On Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee will hold a public hearing on the marijuana legalization bill, House Bill 492, with discussion limited to how much the state stands to benefit from a 15 percent sales tax on the weed.

Bill sponsor Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, estimates it would produce between $20 million and $30 million for the state.

The public hearing is at 9 a.m.

Later that morning, supporters of a new middle-of-the-road approach to pot will hold a news conference.

New Hampshire is about to become affiliated with Smart Approaches to Marijuana (Project SAM), which seeks to bring science to the debate.

Founded by former Rhode Island U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy and Dr. Kevin Sabet, SAM takes a health-first approach to marijuana and would neither legalize nor demonize the drug, according to a news release. SAM seeks to decrease marijuana use while removing criminalizing sanctions for users and small-time dealers, officials say.

Both Kennedy and Sabet will be at the news conference at 10:30 a.m. in the Legislative Office Building.

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Narrow Networks: Much controversy followed the announcement of Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield's Pathway network when the health insurer unveiled its plans to be offered on the state health insurance exchange.

The network did not include 10 of the state's 26 hospitals, including the state's two for-profit hospitals in Derry and Portsmouth; Concord Hospital, Frisbie Hospital in Rochester and Southern NH Medical Center in Nashua; and rural hospitals in Peterborough, Claremont, Lebanon, Colebrook and Lisbon.

Several bills this session would force Anthem to expand the network, but none looks like it has any legs.

When the Pathway network was announced, some lawmakers were quick to blame the Insurance Department for approving the plan.

But department officials said the network meets all the state standards and requirements for an adequate network.

Those who disagree will have an opportunity to voice their opinions. The Insurance Department will hold an informational hearing Feb. 10 at 10 a.m. at the Department of Environmental Services Auditorium, 6 Hazen Drive, to explain the standards and procedures for determining network adequacy, including the review the agency conducted on the Anthem plan.

The department will also take testimony at the meeting.

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Right-to-Work: Killing right-to-work legislation for three years in a row is not enough to put a stake in its heart.

A fourth attempt comes this week when the Senate takes up the latest version of the bill, which looks exactly like the last three versions to prohibit employers and labor organizations from including fees for non-union members in collective bargaining agreements.

The Senate had a hearing on Senate Bill 217 Thursday that lasted less than an hour, a far cry from two years ago, when hearings lasted all day as supporters and opponents packed Representatives Hall. Chances are the bill will not pass, but if it does, it faces certain death in the Democrat-controlled House.

However, the bill has another purpose, which is to put senators on record going into the election season. With the vote on right-to-work, both sides, unions and right-to-work supporters, will know where to spend their time and money.

This is just the beginning of the "political, bellwether bills" we will see this session.

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BIG DAY: Gov. Maggie Hassan will give her first State-of-the-State address Feb. 5 to a joint meeting of the House and Senate in Representatives Hall.

Governors typically lay out their agenda for the coming year, where they believe the state has been and where it should go.

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