By John Toole
---- — Salem lawmakers shepherding the Senate-passed casino bill expect a tight vote in the House today, but are optimistic about passage.
“I think we will be successful overturning the committee’s ‘inexpedient to legislate’ so we can listen to amendments,” Rep. Gary Azarian, R-Salem, said.
Rep. Bob Elliott, R-Salem, remains convinced the bill’s fate is in the hands of four Republican Salem lawmakers who have opposed Senate Bill 152 — Reps. Marilinda Garcia, her sister Bianca, Patrick Bick and John Sytek.
“From my sources, what I’ve heard, is we are three votes short,” Elliott said yesterday. “If they stay home, we’ll have a casino.”
The 400-member House has three vacancies, leaving 397 eligible voters. There are 218 Democrats, 179 Republicans. A simple majority vote is needed for passage.
But last week, a joint House committee recommended killing the bill, 23-22. The committee never took up any amendments. Lawmakers say as many as 19 amendments could be considered during debate today.
Senate Bill 152 would license one casino by bid with local approval. It would allow up to 150 table games and 5,000 slot machines.
Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming Inc., which has an option to buy Rockingham Park, has a $600 million-plus redevelopment plan it estimates could create a combined 3,000 construction and gaming jobs.
The Senate passed the bill, 16-8. It has Gov. Maggie Hassan’s support.
Should the House reject the bill, that may not be the end of discussion.
Former Senate president Arthur Klemm of Windham thinks the Senate could resurrect the casino plan this session in the legislative process.
“I think if it’s a real close vote, the Senate has a position it feels very strong about, I think the issue will continue,” Klemm said. “I think the procedure will allow for it.”
However, Klemm is hoping the House will pass the gaming expansion bill.
“Everyone says it’s a close vote,” Klemm said. “I just hope the legislators stop and think about who they represent.”
Salem voters at Town Meeting passed a non-binding referendum, supporting a casino by a 4-1 margin. That has caused Elliott and others to become upset with the four dissenting Salem lawmakers.
“If we lose the gaming bill on Wednesday by four votes, the future of Salem will never be the same, and neither will the future of the Famous Four,” Elliott posted on his Facebook page yesterday.
“This is an extremely important vote for our whole state, but especially the southern tier,” Klemm said.
The state stands to lose over $100 million annually if casinos open across the border in Massachusetts and New Hampshire doesn’t have one, Klemm said.
Klemm, who served in both the House and Senate as a legislator, is among those who believe the House will defeat the committee’s recommendation to debate amendments.
“I think the legislators want to talk about the issue,” Klemm said.
Azarian said if the House passes some form of the casino bill today, the Senate will concur with its actions and send the bill to the governor.
“I don’t think it should go to a committee of conference (for reconciliation),” he said. “I’d concur with the bill.”
Elliott was pleased when Rep. Mary Till, D-Derry, who previously was undecided, said she wants the House to consider amendments. Till said she could vote for a casino should amendments provide better regulation and assurances jobs will go to New Hampshire residents.
“That’s the fair way to go, I really agree with her,” Elliott said of considering amendments.
Azarian is co-sponsor of what he’s calling the “omnibus amendment,” which would address key concerns raised by the joint House committee.
The amendment strengthens regulation, giving the attorney general and lottery commission more power to regulate a casino, he said.
It also assures the host community, be it Salem or somewhere else, gets 3 percent of revenues and protects charity gaming from a casino’s impact, he said.
Azarian said House leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, have stayed out of the fight, encouraging lawmakers to get the facts and vote their consciences.
“This is truly a bipartisan bill that everybody is working on,” he said. “I think we can prevail.”
The conservative House Republican Alliance is urging members to reject the casino bill, which is in opposition to the Republican Party’s platform against expanded gaming.
Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, co-chairman, said the alliance took the position in a meeting attended by about 30 members yesterday.
Baldasaro isn’t among Republicans who reject expanded gambling. He is willing to allow casinos, but doesn’t want the state awarding a monopoly to one company.
“I am probably going to vote ‘inexpedient to legislate,’’’ Baldasaro said. “If they have enough votes, I’ll listen to the amendments. But unless there’s an amendment out there that says there can be more than one casino, I won’t vote for it.”
The Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce is asking House lawmakers to pass the bill.
“As an organization representing over 400 businesses, we feel it is incomprehensible to think that entertainment dollars and subsequent tax revenues may be deported from New Hampshire and delivered to almost any other New England state,” the Chamber told lawmakers.