Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Mass. competition factors into gambling debate
From last week's all-day public hearing on Senate Bill 152 and an all-day meeting with gambling experts, it is abundantly clear that whoever wins the state's casino license - if there is one - will surely have to up the ante if they are going to provide meaningful competition to casinos planned for Massachusetts.
Currently, the bill calls for an investment of $425 million, but it would allow the license holder to include in the total the $80 million for the license as well as land or site acquisition costs. Consequently, the company would only be obligated to build a casino worth about $330 million to $340 million.
With two companies willing to spend more than $1 billion for resort casinos north of Boston, a $330 million casino is not going to win the game.
The Massachusetts law requires a minimum investment of $500 million, including a 300-room hotel and other amenities.
Clyde Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, told New Hampshire lawmakers there are indications that more and more people who go to resort casinos don't gamble.
People visiting casinos but not gambling has tripled, to about 20 percent, over a period of less than a decade, he said.
Those people are going for the entertainment and services, such as spas and restaurants, because the casinos are marketed as destinations, Barrow told the committee.
Unless a casino in New Hampshire was willing to compete with the destination resorts, the company might as well open a video slots barn or racino like those in Rhode Island.
A racino does not jive with Gov. Maggie Hassan's description of a "high-end, highly regulated casino on the state's southern border."
The other situation abundantly clear is that the state has given itself an out if casino gambling is not working, although any such decision is probably going to be litigated if the Legislature decides to go forward and a casino opens.
Hassan's legal counsel, Lucy Hodder, said no license is for life, meaning lawmakers and regulators can decide to change their minds and up the tax, change operators, and even get out of the business altogether. That may not be terribly comforting to a company that may have to make as much as a $1 billion investment.
The bill is not coming up for a vote in the House until the end of May, so there is a long time for lawmakers to contemplate the ramifications - good and bad - of legalizing casino gambling.
Three legislative subcommittees begin work this week, with the regulations and revenue panels meeting Monday. The subcommittee meetings will continue for about a month before the House takes a vote May 29, giving the Senate about a week to react.
The prime sponsor of the bill, Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, said, "No bill in the history of the New Hampshire Legislature has had this much scrutiny."
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Not in this church: While lawmakers are doing their work, so are the gambling and anti-gambling forces.
A group of unions supporting the casino proposal - including the New Hampshire Building and Construction Trades Council, the New Hampshire Troopers Association, the National Education Association-NH, the State Employees Association, the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire and others - scheduled an event for this Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, across from the State House.
The luncheon was scheduled to have presentations, discussions and analysis of SB 152.
But Friday, the unions were told they could not use the facility after it had been advertised in both the House and Senate calendars.
In an email to Huck Montgomery, who advises the building and trades council, Parish Administrator Kristin Dunklee writes: "When this event was booked by the group NH Building and Construction Trades Council, there was no mention of this being a discussion on gambling, or we would not have approved this use of our space. St. Paul's cannot in any way be connected with this discussion, as we cannot appear to endorse this legislation."
The email was also sent to Jim Rubens, president of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling.
Montgomery called the cancellation a dirty trick - like you would see in a political campaign - but he vowed the event would go on some place near the State House.
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Budget Sessions: The Senate Finance Committee is hearing from various departments this week before members begin deciding what goes in and what is eliminated from the state's operating budget for the next two years.
The University System of New Hampshire will make its pitch to Senate budget writers Monday at 11:30 a.m. The university system had its state funding slashed in half two years ago by the Republican-dominated Legislature and subsequently raised tuition and laid off workers.
The university had great hope with Hassan's election and Democrats controlling the House. Hassan increased system funding by $55 million, which officials said they could live with and would allow them to freeze students' tuition for the next two years. The House cut $12 million of that, and the push is on to persuade the Senate to restore it.
The Attorney General's Office and the court system will make their presentations Tuesday; the Department of Transportation will state its case Wednesday.
The Senate concerns are with revenue, particularly from the Medicaid Enhancement Tax, Health and Human service caseloads, money for hospital uncompensated care and for charter schools and school building aid.
The Senate does not like the 30 cent tobacco tax increase nor the 12 cent increase in the gasoline tax, so look for the budget to be trimmed.
The Senate deadline for acting on the budget is June 6, which is a week after the House votes on the gambling bill.
If the House passes gambling, which at this time appears unlikely, there would be little time for the Senate to add the additional $80 million from a casino license back into the bduget.
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Senate Hearings: Two key pieces of legislation will have public hearings before Senate committees this week.
The repeal of the stand-your-ground law passed a year ago over Gov. John Lynch 's veto - House Bill 135 - is sure to draw a big crowd as it did for the House.
The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing beginning at 9 a.m. Tuesday in State House Room 100.
The other piece of legislation this week is House Bill 595, which does away with the stricter photo identification requirements that are scheduled to go into effect in September.
The bill would essentially continue the practice used in the 2012 general election allowing a wide array of photo identification for voting. The new restrictions would limit acceptable photo IDs to state or federally issued ID cards.
The hearing on what would essentially be the Senate's 2012 version of the photo ID bill is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. before the Public and Municipal Affairs Committee in Room 102 of the Legislative Office Building Wednesday.
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Kimball Petition:Former Republican Party Chairman Jack Kimball's petition to remove 189 lawmakers from office could eventually come before the House.
Kimball claims the 189 House members who voted to approve the repeal of the new stand-your-ground law violated their oath of office and should be removed.
Kimball, a leader in the state's Tea Party movement who heads the Granite State Patriots Liberty PAC, filed his petition with several county sheriffs and with the House Clerk.
Rep. Dan Itse, R-Fremont, said he intends to ask the House Rules Committee to accept the petition as a bill, when the committee meets again, likely in May.
"That's the only option now," Itse said. "It's part of my role as a legislator to explain to people the reality that a citizen doesn't just submit a petition. It has to be sponsored by a representative."
He said he will make his case and the rules committee will vote whether to accept the legislation.
Itse said there should be enough time to act on the petition if it is introduced in May.
"Nothing is going to happen too fast," he said. "The one thing about the Legislature is it is slow and deliberative. That is the nature of beast."
On March 27, the House voted 189-184 to repeal the controversial stand-your-ground law, which was passed by last year's Republican-dominated legislature over the veto of former Gov. John Lynch.
The current law allows the use of deadly force if a victim "reasonably believes" deadly force is about to be used against him. Such force can be used wherever the victim encounters a perceived attacker.
If the law is repealed, a person would first be obligated to retreat if it is safe to do so, before using deadly force.