By Doug Ireland
---- — CONCORD — Eighty-one percent of town voters supported a casino at the polls, but one of two Salem representatives on a House panel voted yesterday to spike an expanded gaming bill.
The House Ways and Means and Finance committees voted, 23-22, against legislation that would allow for expanded gambling in New Hampshire and the establishment of a single casino, possibly at Rockingham Park.
Rep. Marilinda Garcia, R-Salem, was one of two Southern New Hampshire legislators on the so-called super committee to recommend killing the bill. Of the seven area representatives on the House panel, only Garcia and Rep. Norman Major, R-Plaistow, voted with the majority.
The full House will pass final judgment on Senate Bill 152, possibly next week.
Major said he could only support expanded gambling if a better bill were proposed.
The joint panel debated the bill and 18 proposed amendments for nearly three hours in a packed room at the Legislative Office Building before Rep. Patricia Lovejoy, R-Stratham, voted to recommend the full House not pass the bill.
The Senate approved the legislation, 16-8, in March.
While some lawmakers said the state needs the millions of dollars in annual revenue a casino would provide, others said the bill would be problematic if it passed.
“It has a lot of flaws in it,” Garcia said after the vote. “It’s pretty obvious there was a complete consensus there were many flaws.”
Garcia said although she was inclined to vote against expanded gambling, her vote was based on the legislation, not whether her constituents supported a casino.
Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas has proposed a $600-million-plus casino development at Rockingham Park. The bill, which could be voted on by the House as early as Wednesday, allows for up to 5,000 video slot machines and 150 table games. Millennium’s plans also include a 300-room hotel, a spa, the return of live horse racing and more.
Garcia has come under attack from other Salem officials because she is among four of Salem’s nine representatives who have not come out in support of a casino. The others — all Republicans — are Patrick Bick, John Sytek and Garcia’s sister, Bianca Garcia.
Salem’s five other state representatives support a casino, as do the town’s five selectmen and Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, co-sponsor of SB 152.
Morse said yesterday he was disappointed and believes allowing the amendments to be voted on would have gained more support for the bill.
“You would have had a different vote,” he said. “I think it would have made a difference.”
But he also said he’s optimistic about the full House vote.
“It’s obvious there is support for this legislation,” he said yesterday evening. “I think when the full House votes, it could be a positive vote.”
Rep. Robert Elliott, R-Salem, a member of the joint panel, was angry after the results of the roll-call vote were announced yesterday. He pointed to a newspaper photograph of Garcia.
“It came down one vote — her,” he said. “She is going to pay for that. I predicted it would be that close. The people of Salem are going to be furious.”
Other Southern New Hampshire panel members who supported the bill yesterday were Rep. Gary Azarian, R-Salem; Rep. Mary Griffin, R-Windham; Rep. Mary Allen, R-Newton; Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry; and Rep. Anne Priestley, R-Salem.
When the legislation heads to the full House next week, lawmakers won’t be asked to consider a controversial amendment that would have decreased the host community’s share of casino revenue from 3 percent to 1 percent. The amendment angered some Salem officials, especially Elliott.
Before the roll call, lawmakers heard presentations on 17 amendments. But the committee didn’t vote on any of them, which frustrated bill supporters.
Azarian, Griffin and Allen said they were disappointed the bill was voted down without taking action on the amendments. During the hearing, Azarian said a casino would generate much-needed revenue and hundreds of jobs.
“I believe the bill was ready to be passed,” he said.
Some lawmakers, including Azarian, said passage of one major amendment would have eliminated some of the problems with the bill.
Edward Callahan, president and general manager of Rockingham Park, agreed the amendments should have been considered. He wasn’t happy with the panel’s decision, but said he’s looking toward the vote in the full House.
“I’m disappointed in that the leadership didn’t allow the amendments to come in. To not even give them the opportunity was not appropriate, Callahan said. “The 23-22 vote was very close. I think that will create quite a fight on the House floor.”
Millennium spokesman Rich Killion said the close vote was reason for optimism.
“The one-vote difference between support and opposition among the joint committee is light years from where this process started just last month,” said yesterday.
Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who supports a single casino, remained optimistic.
“As the bill moves to the floor, I believe the full House will give a more complete consideration to this legislation and the proposed bipartisan amendments that were not voted on today,” she said in a written statement. “I am confident the House understands that the people of New Hampshire want to invest in the priorities needed to create jobs, strengthen our communities, and spur innovative economic growth: higher education, mental health, public safety, economic development, and other critical areas.”
Hassan included $80 million from a licensing fee in her budget.
But anti-casino groups also were optimistic.
Casino Free New Hampshire and Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling praised the joint panel and urged the full House to defeat the bill.
“The joint committee spent three weeks attempting to address the failings of SB 152 ,but could not overcome the bill’s inadequacies,” said Lew Feldstein of Casino Free New Hampshire. “Thanks to Speaker Terie Norelli and the members of the joint committee, there was a careful review of the bill and they concluded that the certain costs outweigh the possible benefits.”
Jim Rubens, spokesman for the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, agreed.
“It’s a very bad deal for New Hampshire,” he said “Without providing certain, stable revenues for either the next budget or the future, SB 152 would do lasting damage to our state. SB 152 would create more new addicts than new jobs and send millions of entertainment dollars that now circulate in our local economy to a Las Vegas operator.”
More than a dozen union members, representing building trades, attended the panel vote yesterday. They wore blue and white shirts that proclaimed their support for a casino.
New Hampshire Building and Construction Trades Council president Joe Casey said the special committee’s work was “hijacked” by committee leaders.
“It’s clear from today’s razor-thin vote that SB 152 would have seen a favorable outcome if a vote on amendments to improve the bill had been allowed,” he said.