EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 9, 2013

Joint review of casino bill will be undertaken

By John Toole

---- — CONCORD — House Speaker Terie Norelli yesterday announced the Senate-passed casino bill will be reviewed by 45 lawmakers in joint session by two key House panels.

Norelli put the bill before the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax policy, and the Finance Committee, which reviews the budget.

“I am confident that by assembling the expertise and wisdom of these two committees we will ensure the proposed bill will be given the level scrutiny needed for an undertaking of this magnitude,” Norelli said.

Combined review by the two panels provides more time to examine revenue and appropriations issues than would happen if Senate Bill 152 went to both committees separately, the speaker’s office said.

“From the beginning, I have promised that the House will have a full and robust debate on the issue of expanded gambling,” Norelli said, “and I believe this committee allows the best opportunity to achieve that with a thorough and transparent process.”

While unusual, Norelli, as speaker, has assigned bills to joint review before. She did so in 2008 with bills reforming the state retirement system.

Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, and a former legislator, said the very technical bill likely would have required review by two committees anyway.

“I think it makes good sense,” Rubens said.

The joint committee’s schedule is expected to be announced later this week.

The combined 45-member panel will have 25 Democrats and 20 Republicans.

Finance Committee Chairman Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, will serve as chairman of the joint panel. Ways and Means Committee chairman Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, will be vice chairman.

Ranking Republican members will be Reps. Norm Major, R-Plaistow, and Neal Kurk, R-Weare.

The bill is likely to get careful scrutiny from the panel.

Wallner, Almy, Major and Kurk have all voted against expanded gambling in the past, Rubens said.

The joint committee also includes experienced legislators so questions can be expected from other members, too, Rubens said.

“These are seasoned, thinking people,” he said.

SB 152 passed the Senate on a 16-8, bipartisan vote and has the backing of Gov. Maggie Hassan.

Sens. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and Jim Rausch, R-Derry, joined with long-time gaming expansion advocate Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, to gain passage in the Senate.

The bill calls for licensing one casino for $80 million. It’s expected to generate $100 million or more in revenues annually, once opened, though one study has suggested the state’s take could be less with competition from Massachusetts.

Officials intend to use the revenue for colleges, highways and economic development.

Rockingham Park in Salem intends to bid for the license. Plans call for a $450 million investment at the track that would include a casino and the return of horse racing.

Rubens said the proposal leaves many questions, especially about “loosey-goosey” regulation.