By John Toole
---- — New Hampshire casino backers hope a full House is a winning hand this week.
The Senate-passed casino bill, supported by Gov. Maggie Hassan, is up for action Wednesday.
Last week, a joint House committee narrowly recommended killing Senate Bill 152 on a 23-22 vote.
But the closeness of that outcome, given initial expectations the joint House committee was a stacked deck in opposition, is giving proponents hope.
“The plan is to take this to the floor of the House, overturn the committee’s ‘inexpedient to legislate’ and pass it,” Rep. Gary Azarian, R-Salem, said.
There is a big difference in the betting lines on this issue.
Rep. Bob Elliott, R-Salem, one of the early oddsmakers, said the decision could be as tight as eight votes, with Salem’s split delegation potentially deciding the bill’s fate.
Others see the House rejecting the bill by a comfortable margin. Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, late last week projected a 62-vote defeat on his blog.
Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, a casino advocate, agrees with Vaillancourt the bill will lose because of differences among lawmakers about potential amendments.
There are as many as 19 amendments, Elliott said, though it’s unclear how many the House will take up. Proponents are working behind the scenes to coordinate interests and limit amendment discussion to strengthen their hand.
“We know it’s a tough sell,” Sapareto said.
The critical amendment is what Azarian calls “the omnibus.”
Azarian, one of the amendment co-sponsors, said it addresses concerns, especially regulatory, raised during committee review.
“This tightens up all of the regulations and answers all the questions the committee has had,” Azarian said.
But even Sapareto would rework that amendment to reduce from 3 percent to 1 percent Salem’s share of gaming revenues.
Sapareto would shift some of the revenues to county government, reasoning Salem would benefit immensely from property taxes and jobs if Rockingham Park gets the casino.
“This is a major windfall for Salem,” Sapareto said.
Elliott sees the effort to change the proposed revenue sharing formula as something designed to undermine Salem’s support for a casino.
“I think that’s a deliberate attempt to waylay the town of Salem,” he said.
The House also could consider an amendment to allow more than one casino.
Azarian doesn’t expect that will get much support if it comes forward.
“The governor has it right on,” he said. “We need one highly regulated casino and hopefully it will be at Rockingham Park.”
The Republican-dominated Senate passed the bill, 16-8. It would license one casino by bid with local approval. The casino could have up to 150 table games and 5,000 slot machines.
Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming Inc. has an option to buy Rockingham Park and intends to bid for the license. The company has a $600-plus million-dollar redevelopment plan it estimates could create 3,000 construction and gaming jobs.
Proponents say a casino would give the state more than $100 million in annual revenues for highways, economic development and education.
Committee reports in the House calendar make clear the lines in debate.
“This bill asks us to balance new jobs with an increase in social problems and costs that are not well quantified,” Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, wrote for the majority.
She also questioned the adequacy of regulation, stability of revenues and the prospects for proliferation of casinos.
Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough, writing for the minority, countered that a casino will benefit the economy, bring the state needed revenues and argued New Hampshire will lose out while Massachusetts moves forward with casinos.
“A recent poll shows that 63 percent of our citizens support expanded gambling,” Leishman wrote. “They prefer job creation and a voluntary tax on those who choose to gamble over any other alternative revenue source.”
Besides the closeness of last week’s vote, advocates think the joint committee’s refusal to consider amendments could push the bill over the top. They believe action on amendments in committee would have resulted in a recommendation for passage.
“If we had followed the proper process and debated the amendments, this would have come out ‘ought to pass,’” Azarian said.
“Many members are upset about what’s happening,” Sapareto said.
Whether there are enough of them upset enough to pass the bill, and in what form, is a question the House will resolve Wednesday.
Elliott is convinced if lawmakers get the votes for the omnibus amendment, answering all the concerns raised in committee, a win is likely.
“I say we have a victory,” he said.
House lawmakers are hearing about the issue, including from Gov. Hassan.
“The governor believes it is important to have an open dialogue, and she continues to have conversations with members of the House on variety of issues, including SB 152, in order to discuss the need to invest in the priorities that are critical for creating jobs and building a more innovative economic future,” spokesman Marc Goldberg said.
Trade unions that hope to see construction jobs from a casino also are working lawmakers.
Rep. Patrick Bick, R-Salem, said he is getting calls and emails. His colleagues are trying to convince him to change his mind about a casino.
“The one who mainly talks to me is Bob Elliott,” Bick said.
Bick is a freshman lawmaker, one of four Salem representatives who up to now have opposed the casino bill. The others are fellow Republicans, sisters Marilinda and Bianca Garcia, and John Sytek, whose wife, Donna, was a steadfast opponent to expanded gaming when she was Speaker of the House.
“I’ve opposed this since the beginning,” Bick said.
The experience with casinos nationally is they do more harm than good to an area, Bick maintains.
“They hurt local businesses,” he said. “You lose 1.5 jobs for every job created and the jobs are not as high paying as you are led to believe. It’s not good for communities.”
Azarian disagrees. He said the state needs a casino to generate revenues for highways, education and the economy.
“We need to move forward creating jobs,” he said. “Now is the time.”
Azarian is among those who believe the casino will do better than expected in the House.
“I think we’re going to win it. It’s going to be close, 20 or 30 votes,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a good outcome.”