EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 10, 2013

Lots of uncertainty about casino bill's future

By John Toole

---- — CONCORD — Legislative voting records show gambling expansion opponents dominate the joint House panel that will review the Senate-passed casino bill.

But they don’t comprise a majority and the outcome in committee remains in doubt, as it does in the House.

The fate of Senate Bill 152 in the House could hinge on lawmakers with a record of splitting their votes on gambling bills, whose positions are unknown, or whether solidly “no” voters bow to pressure from the governor, Senate and gambling lobby.

“My personal opinion is there is going to be one heck of a debate and a very close vote,” said Rep. Robert Elliott, R-Salem, a supporter of the bill who serves on the joint House panel.

“This is going to come down to a half dozen votes on each side,” Elliott said.

Rep. Mary Allen, R-Newton, agrees with Elliott’s assessment.

“I think it will be a narrow margin,” she said.

Voting records of the committee members tracked by the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling since 2007 show 22 opponents, 14 supporters, two split voters and seven new lawmakers who don’t have a record for those years.

Speaker Terie Norelli has asked the House Ways and Means and Finance committees to jointly review SB 152, which passed the Senate, 16-8, and is backed by Gov. Maggie Hassan.

There are 25 Democrats and 20 Republicans on the joint panel, under leaders who have consistently opposed gambling expansion.

Southern New Hampshire has strong representation on the joint committee: 11 of the 45 seats, or about one fourth.

Reps. Gary Azarian, R-Salem, and Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, are House sponsors of the bill.

One of the Republican leaders on the committee is Rep. Norm Major of Plaistow, who has voted against expanded gambling in past sessions.

Past gaming expansion supporters outnumber opponents, 9-2, in the Southern New Hampshire bloc.

Besides Major, only Rep. Marilinda Garcia, R-Salem, has a record of voting against expanded gaming.

Besides Azarian and Weyler, past supporters have included Allen and Elliott, Frank Sapareto of Derry, Mary Griffin of Windham, and Jordan Ulery, and husband-and-wife lawmakers Russell and Lynne Ober of Hudson. Ulery and the Obers represent Pelham.

All of the Southern New Hampshire lawmakers on the committee are Republicans.

SB 152 proposes licensing one casino for $80 million. Sponsors predict annual revenues of $100 million once the casino comes online.

They say the revenue can pay for highways, colleges and economic development.

Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming Inc. has an option to buy Rockingham Park and has said it will bid for the license.

It has plans for a $425 million casino redevelopment that would include reviving thoroughbred racing.

Hassan has said New Hampshire will lose out to neighboring Massachusetts if it fails to license a casino.

Critics, including the coalition, warn gaming revenues are unpredictable and falling around the country, that a casino would hurt existing businesses, and crime — and potentially political corruption — would follow gambling.

The makeup of the joint committee means the legislation will get proper vetting in the House, in the view of coalition chairman Jim Rubens.

“They’re going to have tough questions,” Rubens said. “That is good.”

But Rubens, who served in the Senate, acknowledges a difficult fight is ahead. Even if the joint committee opposes the bill, the House could decide otherwise.

“Many of these legislators are under extreme pressure,” Rubens said. “No one should be counting chickens. We certainly aren’t.”

Rubens said he expects the final House vote will depend on the positions of freshmen Democrats who have expressed concern about revenues, which the coalition maintains are unpredictable and unsustainable.

Allen said she is supporting SB 152.

“It is the best deal on the table,” she said.

But she wants to hear in the committee how a casino would affect the state’s economy.

“Is it helping the economy of New Hampshire?” she asked. “Will the jobs be geared to New Hampshire residents?”

Ulery, who has supported gaming in the past, said he hasn’t made up his mind.

“I’m sitting on the fence on this one,” he said.

While he said a destination gaming resort could be a good thing, he is concerned about approving a monopoly, as the bill now provides.

“I want to hear this is not a monopoly,” Ulery said, “that this is not government picking winners and losers.”

Ulery wants to hear real facts about revenues and crime.

“I want to see it in black and white,” he said. “I also want to see how the state is going to regulate this and what the costs are for that regulation.”

Elliott said he is absolutely supporting the bill and wants opponents to prove their case that a casino will add to crime and social problems.

A 50-year Salem resident familiar with Rockingham Park’s history, he is skeptical of the claims.

“Ridiculous charges,” Elliott characterizes them. “There has never been any scandal at that track.”

Elliott sees new lawmakers playing a decisive role.

“That’s part of the mystery of the equation,” he said.

Veterans should know by now how they stand, Elliott maintains.

“After all these years, you ought to know down deep in your toes how you stand on the gambling issue,” he said.

But he said the bill hasn’t been whipped yet — a political term for trying to count the votes beforehand — and Statehouse veterans admit to uncertainty over the outcome.

“It’s one of the things that makes this bill so difficult to figure out,” Elliott said. “You never know what will happen that final day.”