EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 14, 2014

N.H. House rejects casino bills

Senate still has its own bill on the table

By John Toole
jtoole@eagletribune.com

---- — CONCORD — The New Hampshire House rejected casino gambling yesterday.

It did so for the second consecutive year. Two bills went down to defeat.

House Bill 1633 would have licensed a single casino with up to 150 table games and 5,000 slot machines. It failed, 173-144.

HB 1626 would have licensed six gaming venues. That went down, too, 187-102.

HB 1633 was the main event, a bill that attempted to rebuild last year’s failed model amid more and tighter regulation.

It resulted in more than an hour of debate.

Rep. Richard Ames, D-Jaffrey, made the economic case in a written minority report from the Ways and Means Committee, which had narrowly recommended killing the bill, 11-9.

“A principal purpose, stated in the bill, is to promote economic recovery, small business development, tax relief and job creation,” Ames wrote.

Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, pointed to the estimated annual revenue, projected as high as $100 million a year, and told colleagues there is no comparable source to fund state services.

Rep. Lucy Weber, D-Walpole, said she was not a fan of gambling, but didn’t want to tell other adults what to do. Failing to approve a casino would mean the state is letting revenue and jobs go to Massachusetts, she said.

Rep. Melanie Levesque, D-Hollis, shared Weber’s view, saying a casino and entertainment complex would benefit the state.

But lawmakers remained concerned about the potential negative impact on the state’s quality of life, uncertainty over revenue and the political influence of gaming interests.

They also weren’t buying the argument of proponents that a casino at Rockingham Park would attract tourists and gamblers from out of state.

“Salem is not going to be a destination casino,” Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, said.

Instead, it would be New Hampshire people within a half-hour drive gambling their income, he said.

“I don’t think this is going to be a destination casino under any stretch of the imagination,” Hess said.

Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming has had plans, revised last year, for a $600-million-plus casino development at Rockingham Park, and would pursue a casino license should the Legislature ever approve one.

The company has estimated a casino project would create a combined 3,000 permanent and construction jobs.

The Senate passed a casino bill last year, only to see it die in the House. The Senate has its own casino bill again this year, Senate Bill 366, which is tabled there. It would allow licensing two casinos.

Gov. Maggie Hassan supports licensing a single casino and had asked House lawmakers to reconsider its opposition in her State of the State speech.

But Hess said the revised House casino plan left no effective checks or balances on a regulatory commission.

“We have a commission that has unbridled power,” he said.

Rep. Gary Richardson, D-Hopkinton, admitted to struggling over the decision, but said he was opposed because of a casino’s impact on the state’s quality of life, the influence of gambling interests in the political process and doubts over reliability of revenue.

Plus, the Legislature could not undo casino gambling once introduced to New Hampshire, he said.

“There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle,” Richardson said.

Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, agreed.

“We cannot have casino money without casino problems,” Wallner said.

In a parliamentary manuever, Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, tried to get the House to refuse to take up any similar bill this session.

“It’s time to move on and not revisit this issue,” Kurk said.

But the House rejected his idea, 166-151, meaning the Senate version could give the gambling debate new life.

“This body should not tie its hands,” Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough, told the House.

The House vote disappointed the governor.

“Despite today’s vote, I continue to believe that developing our own plan for one high-end casino is the best course of action for investing in the priorities that are critical to long-term economic growth,” she said. “Soon, we will all see the impact of Massachusetts casinos right across our border in the form of lost revenue and potential social costs. One way or another, we will need to recognize what is happening around us and take action to protect the interests of New Hampshire’s people and economy.”

Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, who has supported establishing a casino at Rockingham Park, also was disappointed.

“Once again we are disappointed that the House failed to pass this important piece of legislation that would have brought needed economic development and job growth to New Hampshire,” Morse said.