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March 13. 2014 12:43PM

No dice: House kills casino gambling bill

CONCORD — The House refused to bet on legalizing casino gambling Thursday, voting down a bill that supporters said would provide more than $100 million in new state revenue a year.

By nearly the same margin as last year, the House voted 173-144 to kill House Bill 1633, which had the backing of Gov. Maggie Hassan. It would have allowed one casino with up to 5,000 slot machines and 150 table games.

The vote ends a months-long effort to convince House members the state could adequately regulate expanded gaming, addressing concerns raised last year.

"We took what we learned and built a New Hampshire plan," said Rep. Richard Ames, D-Jaffrey, the bill's prime sponsor.

He chaired the Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority, which developed the bill to address concerns raised last year.

"This bill was not written by lobbyists. ... This is a New Hampshire written and New Hampshire developed plan," he said.

But the new regulatory scheme was not enough to convince House members that casino gambling is a good fit for New Hampshire.

"I don't believe that gambling revenue is an equitable or reliable revenue stream," said Rep. Gary Richardson, D-Hopkinton. "There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. If we approve gambling today, we are never going to get rid of it."

Costs too high?

During the one-and-a-half hour debate, lawmakers drew familiar lines in the sand in debating the merits of expanding gambling: potential revenues, social costs, problem gamblers, crime, workforce development, political influence and state benefits.

Supporters said it is time for New Hampshire to act or lose millions in state revenue, jobs and amenities to Massachusetts and its new casinos.

Melanie Levesque, D-Brookline, said a casino would be an economic driver with tremendous opportunity for growth.

"Add a casino and give people one more reason to visit, one more place to play and more dollars left behind to fund our programs," Levesque said.

But opponents said the social and political costs of a casino are too high and there are better ways to raise money.

A casino would cannibalize existing businesses, charitable gaming would disappear and lawmakers will be subject to undue political influence, while millions of dollars in profits would go to out-of-state owners, said Rep. Patricia Lovejoy, D-Stratham. "That is too high a price to pay."

The bill establishes the regulatory framework and oversight authority for all gaming in the state including the Lottery, charitable gaming and racing.

Revisions made to the bill earlier this month would have increased the authority of the Attorney General's Office to determine who could hold a license, maintained charity gaming revenue, protected the Verizon Wireless Arena and provided additional money to local communities.

But Thursday that did not sway enough members to pass the bill, nor did the promise of an additional $25 million in revenue-sharing with communities, an amendment that could not be introduced once the bill was killed.

Checks and balances

Although the bill's regulatory structure drew praise from many, Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, questioned if it would be sufficient to deter undesirable characters from holding the casino license or prevent political influence on lawmakers.

"There are no effective checks and balances on this commission," Hess argued, noting the bill gives the five-member agency sole regulatory authority.

And he said there is no provision for the state to profit or prevent someone flipping the casino license. The state would receive far less of the profits than other states with casinos, Hess said. He estimated New Hampshire would receive $80 million to $175 million less than other states.

Others maintained having one casino creates a monopoly, new jobs would not go to local workers and state residents and problem gamblers would wager a greater percentage than people from nearby states.

'Charlie Brown and Lucy'

Rep. Kathy Rogers, D-Concord, likened the situation to the comic strip "Peanuts," with Lucy holding the football. Every time Charlie Brown tries to kick the football, Lucy pulls it away at the last minute.

Rogers said over the last 15 years, the House has pulled the football away and killed expanded gambling, but this time should be different.

"This is the right bill and this is the right time," Rogers said. "Let's not turn this into Charlie Brown and Lucy holding the football. If we miss this time, everybody loses."

Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, attempted to end all discussion of casino gambling for the rest of the session through a parliamentary maneuver, but that failed on a 166-151 vote.

The Senate has already approved Senate Bill 366 allowing two casinos, but put the bill aside to see what the House did with HB 1633.

After the House vote, the bill's prime sponsor Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, said he hopes his bill will come before the House. But he was realistic about its chances.

"The die is cast," D'Allesandro said. "I don't hold a lot of hope for it."

The House also killed two other casino bills Thursday that would have allowed six casinos in various parts of the state.

grayno@unionleader.com


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