Senate passes expanded gambling bill
CONCORD - Expanding gambling may not solve all the state's fiscal woes, but it is an opportunity to fund critical needs and one the state cannot afford to pass up, said Senate supporters of Senate Bill 152.
The Senate voted 16-8 Thursday to approve the bill, which would allow up to 5,000 video slots machines and up to 150 table games at one casino, presumably along the Massachusetts border.
The vote came on the 50th anniversary of the House vote to establish a state lottery, the first in the country.
Casino gambling supporters believe they have the best opportunity in many years to win approval because Gov. Maggie Hassan supports the bill, including $80 million in her budget from licensing fees, and would be the only option to provide the money needed to improve mental health services, support higher education and help hospitals.
Supporters said the bill would provide the state with $130 million in new revenue a year.
Some of the support the bill received was driven by the programs and services the additional money would allow, as several senators characterized gambling as a "Sophie's choice."
"I find myself between this proverbial rock and a hard place," said Senate Minority Leader Sylvia Larsen, D-Concord.
Others argued the issue is not the morality of using gambling revenues to fund state government, but the immorality of hurting young people and the state's most vulnerable citizens because critical services cannot be funded without additional money, Sen. Molly Kelly, D-Keene, said "To turn young people away from higher education because they cannot afford the tuition is not only immoral, but is very bad for the economy of New Hampshire."
Another reluctant supporter of SB 152, Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, who opposed expanded gambling as a House member, asked what the social cost of losing thousands of jobs would be.
Opponents said gambling would hurt the state's quality of life and inflict harm on communities and families.
"I believe it is wrong for the state's economy and it is wrong for the state's citizens," said Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth. "It is wrong now and it is wrong into the future."
After the vote, the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling said the battle is not lost, but the House still has to act.
"The fight is and always has been in the House, where we see opposition forming over the past few weeks in both parties and for different reasons," said Jim Rubens, the group's chairman. "For Republicans wanting responsible state budgets built on real revenues, casino license money promises are falling flat. Democrats wanting sustainable revenues to support higher education, mental health care, and highways know that serious debate over options will not begin until SB 152 is defeated on the House floor."
The bill's fate in the House is uncertain. House Minority Leader Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, said he does not know how the House will receive the bill.
"There have been dozens of expanded gaming proposals that have failed in the past," Chandler said. "This is why we were alarmed by the governor's budget proposal that included $80 million in casino licensing fees."
SB 152's prime sponsor, Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, addressed some of past concerns about expanded gambling. He said the state has benefitted from the experience of others states in setting up the enforcement and regulatory systems and includes money for problem gamblers.
And he noted, as did co-sponsor Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, that New Hampshire will lose up to $50 million in current revenue if the state does nothing and Massachusetts moves forward with its plan for three casinos and a place for video slot machines.
"We know we are in a competitive environment," D'Allensandro said. "We could lose up to $50 million in revenue if we don't so something to combat that."
Morse told his colleagues expanding gambling was the only option if they want to fund higher education, fix the state's roads and bridges and help the North Country's economic fortunes.
"Unless one of you has a mystery revenue source," he said, "what are we going to do? Tell me where the cuts come from."
He said the state can craft a plan that will benefit New Hampshire and retain the $70 million spent on gambling by state residents in Connecticut and in Massachusetts in the near future.
"We can do this. We can do this in a way that works for New Hampshire, that fits New Hampshire, that fits our state, our customs and our lifestyle," Morse said.
After the vote, Hassan praised the Senate for its bipartisan support for the bill.
"Without this revenue and without beginning to restore the devastating cuts of the last budget, we will risk falling behind economically, we will risk losing out on good jobs and innovative businesses, and we will risk letting the people of our state be denied access to the basic services needed to support their health and safety," Hassan said in a statement. "I look forward to working with members of the House of Representatives to address concerns as the process moves forward, and I expect a robust debate. But if we do nothing, we will lose $75 million per year as Massachusetts moves forward, and we will experience social costs without being able to invest in our priorities."