CONCORD — After nearly a month of hearings, testimony and discussions, the Joint House Finance and Ways and Means Committee voted Wednesday by the slimmest of margins to kill casino gambling.
The super committee voted 23-22 to kill Senate Bill 152, which would allow one casino along the southern border of the state with up to 5,000 video slot machines and 150 table games.
The House has never approved casino gambling. But proponents believe this year is their best chance in some time with the backing of Gov. Maggie Hassan, who supports the bill and included $80 million in licensing fees in her proposed budget.
The House votes on the bill Wednesday, with a long debate expected. House Speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, refused to predict the outcome, but said it would be close.
Casino supporters viewed the committee's close vote optimistically — including the governor, who said the vote shows momentum is growing.
"Even without members having the opportunity to vote on bipartisan amendments, the one-vote margin demonstrates the strong and growing support in the House of Representatives for SB 152," Hassan said. "A number of amendments strengthen the bill and make the regulatory structure more clear. They deserve very careful consideration."
The committee did not vote on 17 amendments proposed by members earlier in the day after the committee voted to kill the bill.
No other options
Bill supporters said the state has no other options to pay for needed state services. They called it an economic development and job creation plan that has the support of the state's people.
"What's the alternative?" asked Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry. "We won't have a sales or income tax. What do you want? Here is one way to raise revenue and not tax the public."
Proponents noted if the state does nothing, Massachusetts casinos will drain state revenues while leaving this state with the social costs.
"I'm very disappointed the will of the people is once again dismissed and our ability to boost economic development and job creation (stymied)," said the bill's prime sponsor, Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester.
Not a good bet
But opponents said a casino would create pathological gamblers, cannibalize existing businesses and exert undue influence on politicians and office holders.
"A casino would bring much-needed revenue to the state, but at what cost?" asked Rep. Patricia Lovejoy, D-Stratham, who made the motion to kill the bill. "It's too high a price to pay. SB 152 is not a good bet for New Hampshire."
Some opposed the bill while not opposing expanded gambling, because they said SB 152 was too flawed and would create a monopoly.
Other opponents said the revenue generated for the state will fall far short of what is promised and others said all the money should go into the general fund to address all the state's needs, rather than directing dollars to higher education, highways and bridges and North Country economic development, as the bill dictates.
Others said the bill does not require the developer to build a high-end or destination casino that could draw out-of-staters, while the profits will not help New Hampshire.
"The bulk of the money will go to owners who don't live in this state," said Rep. Norman Major, R-Plaistow. "The money to support jobs and business will leave this state."
However, 12 committee members who offered an amendment earlier in the day to tighten regulations, restrict political contributions and increase the attorney general's authority plan to offer a similar amendment when the bill comes to the House floor. Other amendments are also expected if the House turns down the committee's recommendation.
"The real game will be played on the House floor," D'Allesandro said.
Some bill supporters objected to the process.
"What is surprising and unfortunate, however, is the (committee) chair's decision to not allow members to vote upon the thoughtful suggestions and amendments prepared by so many members," said Rich Killion, spokesperson for Millennium Gaming, which has an option to buy Rockingham Park in Salem and is a likely bidder. "To have them ceremoniously discarded without a vote seems to be against the best traditions of the people's House."
But opponents praised the process and the work done by the super committee.
"The joint committee spent three weeks attempting to address the failings of SB 152, but could not overcome the bill's inadequacies," said Lew Feldstein of Casino Free New Hampshire. "Thanks to Speaker Terie Norelli and the members of the joint committee, there was a careful review of the bill and they concluded that the certain costs outweigh the possible benefits."
The committee spent the morning reviewing the 17 amendments, ranging from changing the distribution of the state's share of casino profits to a comprehensive rewrite of casino regulation.
Some proposed creating a new commission to oversee casino operations, replacing the Lottery Commission, and reducing the licensing fee while increasing the state's share of profits on the video slot machines and table games.
Another proposal would make gambling legal, while yet another would allow video slots machines in any establishment with a liquor license; another increased the mandatory investment in the facility so it could compete with a destination casino near Boston.
The bill passed the Senate on a 16-8 vote earlier this session.