By HOLLY RAMER
---- — CONCORD — A commission that will recommend regulations for any future casinos in New Hampshire started its work yesterday with some disagreement over what it is supposed to be doing.
The commission is required to submit draft legislation to lawmakers by Dec. 15. At its first meeting, chairman and state Rep. Richard Ames outlined what he believes the legislation should cover, including the number of slot machines and table games allowed and the price for each gambling license.
But Attorney General Joseph Foster said he doesn’t think the commission should make recommendations about tax rates or license fees, because that would be straying beyond regulations into policy decisions.
“I see those as two different bundles of issues,” he said.
Gov. Maggie Hassan, who lobbied heavily for a casino before lawmakers killed a proposal this year, has said she hopes the commission will address their concerns about the state’s ability to regulate a casino. State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat, plans to file a new casino bill for legislators to take up next year.
Supporters have argued that gambling is the best way to raise money for transportation, education and other needs without implementing a personal income or general sales tax. But opponents argue a casino isn’t worth the possibility of more gambling addicts and a tarnished image for a state that caters to families and tourists.
State Rep. Lucy Weber, a member of the commission, said the group’s task is complicated, because it will be hard to write regulations for something that doesn’t exist, and lawmakers are concerned about approving a casino without detailed regulations in place.
“Politically, this has always been a chicken-and-egg problem,” she said.
Paul Kelley, director of the state Racing and Charitable Gaming Commission, walked the committee through a history of legalized gambling in New Hampshire and the challenges his office faces in regulating legal charitable gambling and investigating illegal operations. He described video poker machines that are ostensibly for “entertainment only” but actually deliver payouts and other machines that skirt the law, saying “the money out there is tremendous.”
The bill rejected by the Legislature in May would have allowed the construction of one casino with 5,000 slot machines and 150 table games. The commission, which is allowed to spend up to $250,000, plans to hire two consultants, one who is an expert in gambling regulation and one who is an expert in New Hampshire law.