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April 07. 2013 12:14AM

Garry Rayno's State House Dome


 
Battle On

As the state budget leaves the House and the action switches to the Senate, the heat is being turned up under the House over gambling.

After the House passed the budget, Gov. Maggie Hassan and Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Morse, R-Salem, both released statements urging the House to approve Senate Bill 152 which would allow one "high-end, highly-regulated" casino with up to 5,000 video slot machines and 150 table games.

Several traditional opponents of expanded gaming have switched course and backed the bill including the National Education Association New Hampshire which held a press conference last week to say the gambling money is needed to pay for essential services like higher education and catastrophic special education aid for school districts.

"Given how education has come to rely on gaming in New Hampshire, and how the methods of gaming have changed in the state," said NEA-NH president Scott McGilvray, "it is difficult for an education association to claim that one form of gaming is morally superior to another."
He noted much has changed in the last decade since the organization's board of director opposed expanded gambling.

Over the past half dozen years, the NH Lodging and Restaurant Association has not taken a position on the gambling proposals before lawmakers. The individual business owners often checked in, but the organization did not.

A decade ago the organization opposed expanded gambling and last week, with more and more organizations and industry representatives weighing in, the NHLRA board of directors voted "overwhelmingly" to oppose the proposal before lawmakers.

The organization cited concerns about lost business, the state's family-friendly image and proliferation once a casino has a foothold in the Granite State.

But as the organization's president Mike Somers noted, the membership is divided on the issue.

Long-time Manchester area restaurateur Chuck Rolecek, along with Shorty's president and COO Jay DelMonte, Joe Faro, owner of Salem's Tuscan Kitchen, Jim Makris, owner of Concord's Makris Restaurant and others all endorsed SB 152.

They also took the opposite view of the lodging and restaurant group, saying a casino would help their businesses.

"Projects of this size don't come often," said Rolecek "Casino gambling would provide significant economic development to southern New Hampshire. The thousands of jobs that would come to a casino speak for themselves. So do the thousands of construction jobs a project of this magnitude would bring."

Delmonte questioned what would happen if the state did nothing as casinos open in Massachusetts.

"What if we don't move forward as a state?" Delmonte said. "The answer is clear. The casinos that are going to open in Massachusetts will most certainly draw away business from New Hampshire. That is millions of dollars that could be spent here, but will be lost to our south."

Earlier two police unions backed the Senate-passed plan breaking with much of law enforcement which has consistently argued expanded gambling would produce more crime and wreck families and individual lives.

Representatives of the New Hampshire Troopers Association and the New Hampshire Police Association said last month a casino would bring no more crime than a large shopping mall.

They touted the benefits of the additional revenues allowing the state to add troopers and other law enforcement personnel and fund programs eliminated the past two years like Children in Need of Service aimed at rehabilitating at-risk kids before they become criminals.

The New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police has long opposed expanded gambling and has not changed its mind.

Association Second Vice President Richard Crate, chief of the Enfield Police Department, took issue with the statement a casino would not create any more crime than a new shopping mall. That's ludicrous, he said.

The issues, he said, are increased crime, addiction, "the breakup of the family" and potential financial damage to the existing hospitality industry.
Others organizations or constituencies coming out for gambling revenues in recent weeks are the State Employees Association, and the mental health and developmentally disabled communities.

The Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling has also been active contacting House members and meeting with editorial boards and organizations to make its case.

Last week the coalition's chairman, former State Sen. Jim Rubens sent an email to lawmakers and the media questioning claims by casino supporters that the New Hampshire facility would be "high end," or stimulate development. He also noted the winning bidder would have a monopoly.

"Watchword for New Hampshire Legislators? Eyes Open!" Rubens wrote.

Lobbyists for the various proposals for the casino were also working House members one at a time.

The House Ways and Means Committee has yet to schedule a public hearing on SB 152. The bill has little chance of winning the committee's endorsement some of its members are the staunchest anti-gambling members of the House.

Once the public hearing is done and the committee makes it recommendation, the emails and calls will really begin for House members.

Charter Schools

Charter schools and their supporters took one of the biggest hits in the House approved budget package. They haven't taken that kind of hit in a long time.

Not only did the House strip out the $2.5 million in funding for new charter schools Hassan included in her budget proposal, the House added a moratorium on any new charter schools.

While the state board suspended applications for new schools, it did not officially declare a moratorium.

The House did follow Hassan's lead and give the state Board of Education, which has to approve new charter school applications, more authority and oversight to determine if a new facility is needed in a geographic area or in a subject area like math and science or the arts.

The House beat back attempts to reverse those changes along with another requiring state audits every three years.

Charter schools are public schools and they receive state aid of about $5,200 per student which is about $1,200 more per student than regular public schools.

Charter school supporters have to hope they have a more sympathetic ear in the Republican controlled -- 13-11 – Senate, which in the past has been supportive.

"It seems as though public charter schools are once again a bargaining chip in political negotiations. The house cut out money for news charter schools but the state will lose more than twice that in federal grant funds if the senate lets this stand," said Matt Southerton, director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools. "There are at least a half dozen lobbyists in Concord whose job is to protect the status quo and they are trying to circumvent the democratic process by using HB 2 instead of going through a policy committee where we can all witness them testify.

"I honestly don't know why they perceive charter schools as some great threat, they represent only about 1.5 percent of all public school students. Their behavior is grotesque," he said.


Senate Jumps

It did not take the Senate long to begin running out House bills that are important to the lower chamber.

This week there are hearings on some key bills that House members hold dear such as re-instituting the state's minimum wage law that was eliminated by lawmakers during the last legislative term. House Bill 501has a public hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee at 2:20 p.m. Tuesday in Room 101 of the Legislative Office Building.

Another bill that received a lot of attention, House 573, which would legalize medical marijuana or "cannabis for therapeutic purposes," has a hearing at 1 p.m. Thursday in Room 100 of the State House.

The same day and in the same room, House bill 621, decriminalizing marijuana, and House Bill 153, legalizing industrial hemp as an agricultural product, have hearings Thursday beginning at 9 a.m.

The Senate Finance Committee will hear House Bill 443, which would prohibit the privatization of state prisons Tuesday at 1 p.m. in Room 103 of the State House.

Taking these bills up early when the full Senate meets in session again April 18 should be the official start of the legislative war between the Senate and House.



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