By John Toole
---- — CONCORD — The House voted yesterday to kill a New Hampshire casino proposal, 199-164.
By a wider margin, the House then ruled out possible reconsideration, 212-152.
It’s unclear whether the issue is completely dead because one co-sponsor, Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, refused to rule out bringing it back through the Senate, which had passed the casino bill, 16-8.
“I’ll consider anything that addresses the needs of the people of the state,” D’Allesandro said after the House vote yesterday.
However, other Senate and House lawmakers doubted that would happen.
Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, the Senate Finance chairman, as well as a co-sponsor of the casino proposal, said he would not let it come back through the budget process.
Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, who had opposed the casino bill, didn’t see it happening.
“Sen. Morse has made it clear he will not try to put it in the budget,” Bradley said. “He respects the process. Chuck is a man of his word.”
Reps. Gary Azarian, R-Salem, and Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, who had worked to pass the bill in the House, remained optimistic about passage in the future, but not a revival this year.
“The House position is clear,” Sapareto said. “You would have a shot if the speaker or either party leader supported this, but since they don’t, I don’t think there is a 1 percent chance.”
Azarian thought momentum for passage was building toward a 30-vote win, but the outcome went the other way.
“I think the Legislature did a disservice to the people of the state,” he said.
The House took up a joint committee’s recommendation on Senate Bill 152, which would have licensed one casino by bid with local approval.
Support was strong in Salem
Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming Inc., which has an option to buy Rockingham Park, intended to pursue the license and has plans for a $600 million-plus redevelopment it estimates could create 3,000 construction and gaming jobs.
At Town Meeting in March, 81 percent of Salem voters passed a non-binding referendum supporting a casino.
“I feel bad for Salem, but also the citizens of the state,” Azarian said. “We had an opportunity for jobs and an opportunity for revenues to fix our highways and fund our colleges, and we threw that out the window.”
Azarian speculated the ramifications would come in the budget.
“Now, unfortunately, I think we will have to deal with deep cuts,” he said.
The House debated the casino bill for more than two hours.
By a roll call vote, the full House accepted a joint House committee recommendation, 23-22, that the bill was “inexpedient to leigislate.” That meant more than a dozen proposed amendments never came to a vote either in committee or the full House.
“It is disappointing to see the House of Representatives break from the New Hampshire tradition of open and thorough debate on key issues by voting against moving forward with full consideration of SB 152 and the thoughtful, bipartisan amendments being offered by members,” Gov. Maggie Hassan said.
Hassan pushed hard for the bill, believing it would help fund needed services.
“Without passing SB 152, the path will be more difficult, but the people of New Hampshire expect us to do difficult things,” she said.
Revenue pitted against quality of life
The debate pitted economic interests against concerns over regulation and quality of life.
Southern New Hampshire lawmakers who spoke on the issue focused on potential jobs and revenues for the state.
“We have no other source of revenue,” Sapareto told the House.
Azarian said a casino would help finish the Interstate 93 widening and create jobs.
“These are not low-paying jobs,” Azarian said.
Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, said failure to open a casino would create a giant funnel for revenue dollars flowing from New Hampshire to Massachusetts.
“That’s billions with a ‘B,’” Campbell told the House.
Rep. James Webb, R-Derry, said constituents had asked him to approve the casino.
“The people are telling me they want it,” Webb said.
Rep. Kevin St. James, R-Kingston, used the occasion for his first floor speech, saying the casino would benefit the people of the state.
“This is an economic issue,” he said.
But other lawmakers thought the bill benefitted Millennium, regarded as the frontrunner for the license, more than the state.
“This bill represents a corrupt bargain,” Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, who has supported casino bills before, told the House. “This is the worst of all possible ways to bring expanded gambling into our state.”
Others were uncomfortable the bill did not provide enough regulation.
“We do not have a regulatory or enforcement system in place,” Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, said.
Three Salem lawmakers — Patrick Bick, Marilinda Garcia and John Sytek — voted to kill the casino, as expected. Garcia’s sister, Bianca, did not vote.
Only one Derry lawmaker, Republican Rep. Bob Fesh, voted to kill the casino.
Windham’s delegation supported the casino, as did the only two Pelham lawmakers in the Pelham-Hudson district, Charlene Takesian and Paddy Culbert. So did Ken Weyler of Kingston.
Al Baldasaro of Londonderry voted to overturn the committee recommendation so amendments could be heard.
But some other area lawmakers voted to kill the casino bill, including Sherm Packard of Londonderry, Norm Major of Plaistow, Dan Tamburello of Londonderry and Regina Birdsell of Hampstead.
Millennium sticks with The Rock
The House vote disappointed Millennium.
“Certainly, we are disappointed by today’s vote. It’s unfortunate that the House chose today to stand against the people of New Hampshire and their 2-to-1 support for casino gambling in our state,” spokesman Rich Killion said. “Regardless of today’s outcome, we remain committed to the people of Salem and Rockingham Park.”
Salem residents with the NH Casino Now group and labor activists who supported the casino bill joined Rockingham Park president Ed Callahan and Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce leader Donna Morris outside the Statehouse before the House session in a show of support.
Al Farnell, 80, a retired Teamster from Salem was among them. Farnell said he had reasons for supporting the casino bill.
“For the jobs and for what this can do, not just for our town, but all the towns around us,” he said.