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Updated: NH House defies Hassan, kills casino bill by 35-vote margin

Senior Political Reporter

May 22. 2013 9:57PM

CONCORD -- The House Wednesday killed Gov. Maggie Hassan's pet proposal to bring casino gambling to New Hampshire and with it an estimated $80 million in revenue in the next two years and $130 million in gaming taxes in ensuing years.

After 15 years of trying and failing, gambling interests believed as late as Wednesday morning this was the year they would finally break through and pass the bill, which had been passed by the Senate and had been believed to be fueled by concern about Massachusetts moving toward licensing casinos .

But the House, sticking to its long tradition, slapped down the bill, 199-164, with 107 Republicans and 92 Democrats voting to kill the bill and 112 Democrats and 52 Republicans in favor of keeping it alive for further debate and possible amendments.

The House then voted against reconsideration, 212-152, meaning the bill cannot be resurrected in the current two-year session.

The 35-vote margin of the initial vote also means it is highly unlikely gambling will be resurrected through another legislative vehicle, such as the budget, during the current session.

Establishment of single "high-end, highly regulated casino" had been a key component of Hassan's successful campaign for governor. And she backed up her desire in her budget, which assumed $80 million in revenue from casino licensing fees.

She lobbied hard -- including throwing a last minute lunch for lawmakers funded by her inaugural campaign -- for passage of Senate Bill 152.

Gambling proponents had more than a dozen amendments ready, including several key ones that they said would have strengthened the regulatory aspects of the bill.

But the House never got that far. It upheld the 23-22 vote of a "supercommittee" of 45 key House members last week recommending that the bill be rendered "inexpedient to legislate."

Hassan said in a statement after the vote she was disappointed the House broke from "the New Hampshire tradition of open and thorough debate on key issues by voting against moving forward with full consideration of SB 152 and the thoughtful, bipartisan amendments offered by members.

She added in a news conference, "They didn't listen to the people of New Hampshire and the priorities they support and the way to fund those priorities."

But she said she remains "committed to working with the Legislature to finalize a balanced budget that restores the priorities that the people of New Hampshire support: job creation, higher education, economic development, strengthening our mental health system and protecting the health and well-being of our communities."

Without gambling, she said, "the path will be more difficult, but the people of New Hampshire expect us to do difficult things."

Top gambling foe Jim Rubens of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Expanded Gambling said the casino bill died "in spite of the most intense lobbying and arm-twisting operation ever for a gambling bill.

"It's time for the Legislature and the governor to find a new and better approach the budget making," Rubens said.

Top Senate co-sponsor and 15-year gambling champion Lou D'Allesandro. D-Manchester, said, "We brought a piece of legislation forward in a bipartisan manner to provide an economic recovery and a job creation package. It would have created 1,000 jobs and bring private capital into the state. We knew we needed the money for the budget, now its up to the House to make up the difference."

The bill would have allowed 1,500 slot machines and 500 table games at a single location in southern New Hampshire. It would have created a commission to study the possibility of future gambling sites.

Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas, which holds an option to purchase Rockingham Park, proposed a $600 million investment to bring a casino to the site of the former racetrack on the Massachusetts border. After the vote, a spokesman said the company remains it committed to Salem and the former racetrack.

"Well, I'm a little bit depressed," state Rep. Robert Elliot, R-Salem, said Wednesday night after the vote. "I'm sure that if this bill had passed, it could have meant a lot to my constituents if Salem had been the selected site."


Elliot said he was frustrated that the bill was killed by such a large margin and that no amendments were considered.


"All that hard work, all the hours and hours and hours ... all for nothing," he said. "They threw it all out."


Elliot, a Republican, said he'd congratulated Hassan, a Democrat, on her courage for putting the issue forward and including the revenue in her budget.


"I feel bad for the governor. Where are we going to get all of this revenue?" he said.


"I don't drink, so I can't even drown my sorrows," he said. "I've got to laugh or I'll just end up crying."


The Greenmeadow Country Club in Hudson said it had an arrangement with a casino company to bring a casino and hotel to the site.


The New Hampshire Motor Speedway also wanted a piece of the action, although its officials have said it would be unrealistic for them to build a facility that meets the bill's minimum investment requirement of $425 million.


Intense debate

House Speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, remained neutral on the bill, while other members of her leadership team opposed it.


In the more than two-hour House debate, House Finance Committee Chairman Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, said the supercommittee spent more than a month "uncovering problems and inadequacies in the bill that the majority of the members feel they were not able to fix."


The bill, she said, "is not right for New Hampshire and would have long-term, unpredictable consequences for our state."


But Rep. Stephen Spratt, D-Greenville, said the bill would create "thousands of jobs" and cited the needs of "family, friends and community members who need our help, but because of revenue constraints will often be left to themselves."


"If we do nothing, where will the money come from to address these costs in an already revenue-strained environment?" asked Spratt.


Spratt said arguments that gambling will hurt the state's wholesome "branding," or image, are also false.


"The New Hampshire brand has remained strong over the decades" despite liquor stores on highways and a lottery and charitable gaming, Spratt said.


Rep. Patricia Lovejoy, D-Stratham, a key foe, said that although the bill called for only one casino, "Proliferation is a given."


Lovejoy also argued the bill has regulatory "deficiencies" and an "arbitrary and unrealistic time line."


She said most new jobs would go to Massachusetts residents and the casino would not produce as much revenue as the proponents had promised.


Lovejoy also said that if gambling is legalized, the casino ownership will have "considerable influence on future legislatures," and she also warned that the bill would create thousands of new problem gamblers and "pathological gamers" that, together with "abuse costs," could cost as much as $100 million annually.


Booze, butts, bets

But Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, said New Hampshire already raises its money from "booze, butts and bets" through the state liquor sales, a cigarette tax and a lottery.


Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, called the bill "a real bargain," but for Millennium Gaming, not for New Hampshire taxpayers.


He called it "a corrupt bargain drafted by the greediest of the greedy," gambling lobbyists.


Rep. Leon Rideout, R-Lancaster, warned his region may not see the targeted money promised in the bill.


Gambling foe Rep. Bob Backus, D-Manchester, warned a casino will hurt entertainment businesses in his city and others.


Rep. Warren Groen, R-Rochester, a self-described "refugee" from New Jersey, said Atlantic City was once predicted to be a "jewel," but has turned out to be a "glitzy strip" surrounded by a "giant slum."


The lottery agency, she said, "knows marketing but they don't know regulation and they don't know enforcement."


Top gambling proponent Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, warned of the "very high price of doing nothing" and said "legal gambling currently exists in New Hampshire on a massive scale."


Campbell said a vote against gambling would crate "a giant funnel that will over time divert billions of dollars into the Massachusetts budget coffers," which he said, "defies common sense."


Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, a key opponent, after the vote complimented "courageous" Democrats who "had the commitment to go against a very popular Democratic governor and do the right thing."


Revenues and costs

When Hassan placed $80 million in gambling licensing fees in her proposed budget even though it had not yet become law, it opened her to criticism from opponents, and the $80 million was removed by the House in its proposed budget that was sent to the Senate.


The GOP-controlled Senate Finance Committee is now expected to propose major cuts to the House-passed budget, setting up a confrontation with the Democratic-controlled House on taxes and spending as the legislative session heads into its final month.


Gambling supporters said with the bill being killed, the state will lose out on that licensing money as well as future revenue of $130 million per year once a casino is up and running. They say the state will also lose $24 million annually in reduced rooms and meals tax and lottery sales, as Granite Staters will go to Massachusetts to gamble.


Massachusetts is moving toward licensing three casinos and a slot machines parlor, and the nonpartisan New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies concluded that without gambling in New Hampshire, the Granite State will lose $75 million a year in rooms and meals and lottery revenue as well as expenditures to deal with the "social costs" of gambling.


Click here to view the roll call vote.

Editor's Note : The vote was to rule the bill inexpedient to legislate, so a "Yea" vote is a vote to kill the bill.


New Hampshire Union Leader Reporters Garry Rayno and Tim Buckland contributed to this report.

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