April 16. 2013 10:22PM

Casino gambling foes, friends wage passionate battle

State House Bureau

Whether the damage to the state's image is worth the increased revenue from casino gambling was the big question for opponents of a bill to allow one casino to operate in New Hampshire were asking at a public hearing Tuesday.

Supporters of Senate Bill 152 responded with questions of their own: Are casino opponents willing to live with the highest state college tuition in the country, inadequate mental health services and millions of dollars a year of New Hampshire money flowing into Massachusetts?

About 100 people attended the day-long hearing before the joint Finance and Ways and Means committee, which meets again today to begin reviewing the bill that last month passed the Senate, 16-8.

The House has never approved expanded gambling and gambling supporters acknowledge they have an uphill battle.

But supporters believe this time could be different because Massachusetts has approved three new casinos and one video slot machine facility.

"With intense competition from Massachusetts looming, the time to move forward is now to benefit New Hampshire while maintaining our brand as a safe, family-friendly state with a vibrant outdoor economy," said Gov. Maggie Hassan, who testified in support of the bill. "As we have proven before, we can do this the New Hampshire way."

She said casino revenue will help pay for higher education, hospital aid, school building projects and will create jobs.

Senate Finance Committee Chair and bill co-sponsor Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said the state has an opportunity it cannot afford to miss.

"Without the revenue from this bill, it will be difficult to fund the (state operating) budget," he said.

House budget writers did pass a budget without gambling revenues, but Morse has said without the casino revenue, about $100 million will have to be cut from the budget.

Opponents step up

Gambling opponents ranged from religious leaders to the hospitality industry to non-profit performing arts centers. They said adding a casino will change the state's image and create unfair competition that could close many small businesses.

"We'll risk losing everything we are known for - our mountains and lakes - and we'll lose our competitive advantage," said Bob Goodman, professor emeritus of hospitality management at the University of New Hampshire. "This casino bill insults our New Hampshire image, and there's no going back once the camel gets his nose under the tent."

Others said casinos target the most vulnerable citizens who do not know their poor odds of winning when playing the video slot machines.

Bob Schneider of Claremont said, "It is a regressive tax on the poor and the ignorant," while Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, said casinos would "taint the New Hampshire brand and cannibalize the profits of New Hampshire businesses."

The money

The bill would allow up to 5,000 video slot machines and 150 table games.

Supporters say it will provide up to $130 million annually for the state, while doing nothing will cost the state between $50 million to $80 million a year in lost revenue.

Under the bill, 45 percent of the state's share of gambling revenue - or about $50 million annually - would go to higher education.

The same amount of money would go to fix the state's roads and bridges, and 10 percent or about $10 million, would be used for North Country economic development.

The host community would receive 3 percent of net casino income, abutting communities 1 percent.

One percent would be for treating problem gamblers.

The bill has a hold harmless provision so existing charity gaming organizations would retain their current earnings.

A gaming enforcement unit would be established within the State Police, while the Lottery Commission would accept and review applications as well as oversee casino operations. The Attorney General's Office would conduct background checks on the applicants.

Law enforcement split

SB 152 has divided the law enforcement community, with the NH Troopers Association and NH Police Association supporting the bill, and the NH Association of Chiefs of Police and the Attorney General's Office opposed.

Seth Cooper, president of the Troopers Association, said the bill provides adequate regulations and enforcement, and noted casinos do increase motor vehicle and alcohol offenses, but not serious crime.

However, Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice disagreed.

"The income stream from gambling comes at a huge societal cost," Rice said. "There is a clear connection between the introduction of casino gambling and an increase in crime."

Others said while the bill limits expanded gaming to one "high-end, highly regulated casino on the state's southern border," once the foot is in the door, there will be more casinos and slot machines will be in every convenience store and bar.

Gambling opponent Lew Feldstein, who served on former Gov. John Lynch's Gaming Study Commission, said, "One casino will lead to unstoppable proliferation."

There will be a slot barn within 30 miles of any resident's home and in stores, restaurants and bars, he said, as has happened in every state that legalized casinos.

"I'd be willing to bet on it," Feldstein said. "I'll bet you double or nothing someone will be standing here in this well pushing for more (once one is here)."

Making it fair

Others support the bill's concept, but want to make sure everyone has an opportunity to compete for the one casino in an open and fair process.

Attorney Tom Leonard, who represents Green Meadow Golf Club in Hudson, which has an interest in competing for the facility, said the "time constraints in this bill work against an open and fair process."

The bill's prime sponsor, Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, said he feels like former Rep. Larry Picket of Keene, who tried for years to pass a sweepstakes bill. Fifty years ago, Picket was finally successful.

"Larry proved that if you have the courage of your convictions and are willing to work tirelessly, you will succeed," D'Allesandro said.

The committee meets at 9:30 a.m. today to hear experts.