By John Toole
---- — SALEM — Rep. Marilinda Garcia will hold ‘em or fold ‘em today.
The four-term representative is under pressure from constituents and a majority of the Salem legislative delegation to reverse her long-standing opposition to expanded gambling and instead support authorizing a New Hampshire casino.
Potentially at stake for Salem are an estimated 3,000 construction and gaming jobs as well as the future of Rockingham Park.
Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming Inc. has a $600 million-plus redevelopment plan for Rockingham Park, built around a casino complex, and intends to bid for a license.
Garcia is a member of a joint House committee reviewing Senate Bill 152, which would license one casino by bid with local approval.
A committee vote is scheduled for today, with full House debate expected next week.
Garcia, a Republican, won re-election on a platform that included rejecting expanded gaming.
“Opposing state institutionalization of casino and video-lottery gambling as a reliable revenue stream,” was one of her planks promoted on her campaign website. The website said she “stands firm” on the issue.
But that was before Salem voters passed a non-binding referendum supporting a Salem casino by a 4-1 margin at Town Meeting in March.
Garcia has given no indication publicly, either in committee discussions or other venues, that she has changed her mind. Her Twitter account is silent on the question. She did not return a call yesterday.
“She understands the situation. She knows how the people of Salem feel,” said Larry Belair, a member of the NH Casino Now group that is advocating for casino licensing. “Whatever she sees wrong with the bill, she will have to come to terms with the people of Salem.”
NH Casino Now has encouraged casino supporters to contact not only Garcia, but all their Salem representatives, to encourage them in backing the bill, which the Senate passed and the governor wants.
Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling chairman Jim Rubens acknowledged what he described as “tremendous pressure” for passage not only on the joint committee but throughout the House, especially freshmen Democrats.
“They are under serious pressure,” Rubens said. “No matter how the vote comes out in committee, this will end up a major floor fight in the House.”
Rubens wouldn’t predict how Garcia or any member of the committee will vote, but praised the panel’s work.
“The super committee has done more work and dug deeper into this casino bill than any committee has done on this issue in over a decade,” Rubens said.
The coalition is asking the committee to recommend killing the bill, which it has repeatedly said is flawed and unable to produce the kind of predictable revenue stream envisioned by supporters.
Subcommittee members have failed to reach agreement over an amendment intended to fix regulatory concerns, Rubens said.
Garcia, since her election in 2006 at age 23, has been regarded as a rising Republican star on the New Hampshire political scene.
The casino battle represents a major test that could affect her political future.
There is no sympathy from Belair, a former three-term lawmaker.
“This is not her first term,” he said. “She understands the pressure that goes with the job.”
For Belair, it’s really a simple decision.
“This one, seems to me, is a no-brainer,” he said. “There is such an overwhelming amount of support for this in Salem that one has to really think hard, as a representative, what you are doing there. You are going to Concord to serve people who are unable to put the time into the job.”
He points to that 81 percent vote by Salem residents at Town Meeting.
“Hello! What else do you need to hear from the people,” Belair said.
Rep. Bob Elliott, R-Salem, a casino advocate, during a forum on the Rockingham Park redevelopment plan last week, encouraged residents to contact Garcia and three other Salem lawmakers who have indicated opposition.
They are Reps. Patrick Bick, John Sytek and Bianca Garcia, Marilinda’s sister.
Last week, Elliott said the committee vote is split 20-20 with five undecideds. The full House, he said, is as close as eight votes.
“It hasn’t changed,” he said.
The Salem lawmakers could be the difference, Elliott maintains.
“If you take four no votes and make them four yes votes, that’s a swing of eight votes,” he said. “Their vote is going to be crucial.”
Elliott said he is getting feedback from constituents encouraging a yes vote on the casino. He concedes that could be because people know he is for it.
“They know my position,” he said.