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Capital Beat

Capital Beat: Reading the tea leaves on casino gambling (and more)

When a bill legalizing a single casino lost by 29 votes in the New Hampshire House two weeks ago, Steve Duprey, a leading anti-casino voice, called the vote a “silver stake” in the heart of casino proposals – a final defeat in a 16-year battle to bring casinos to New Hampshire.

But nothing is every truly dead until the legislative session is over, and casino supporters suddenly find themselves with one last shot to push a bill through. Thursday was the deadline for the House and Senate to vote on bills and send them to the other chamber, a period known as crossover. In their very last vote of the day Thursday, senators gave casinos one last breath of life, voting 15-9 in support of a bill to legalize two.

It’s one of many bills that faces an uncertain fate in the other chamber. The House did speak against one casino, but it looks as if the vote on this two-casino bill could be a bit closer. In addition to legalizing two casinos, the Senate bill includes all of the regulations in the House’s one-casino bill and restores $25 million in revenue sharing for towns and cities.

If the same number of lawmakers who voted on the House proposal show up to vote on the Senate proposal, supporters will need to flip about 16 votes. But there were 71 members who didn’t vote on the House casino bill, meaning the fate of the bill could also depend on who shows up next time.

During debate on the one-casino proposal, a number of House members stood up to say they wouldn’t support the bill because it created a monopoly. Rep. Dan McGuire, an Epsom Republican, was one of those members. He doesn’t plan to support a two-casino bill either. The Senate bill includes a 10-year moratorium on new casinos beyond the first two, and McGuire says limiting the number of casinos like that still creates a monopoly. But he said having two locations might make some anti-monopolists switch their votes. Revenue sharing is also a key aspect of the Senate bill that could flip votes. The state froze revenue sharing in 2010, and this bill would send a total of $25 million in property tax relief to communities across the state.

If casinos supporters cobble together enough votes to pass the Senate bill as is, Gov. Maggie Hassan will be in a tough spot. She campaigned on legalizing one casino as a crucial source of new revenue and has never voiced support for two. The House could also amend the bill, which would likely bring House and Senate members together in a committee of conference to come up with a bill that works for both chambers. Any casino bill passed by the House is highly likely to get support in the Senate.

“I think that with casinos, it’s always going to be a close vote on the floor,” said Rep. Katherine Rogers, a Concord Democrat and casino supporter.

The casino bill isn’t the only bill with an uncertain fate in the next few months. The Senate is almost certain to kill a House bill to raise the minimum wage, and a bill to increase the state’s gas tax to fund road and bridge projects should make it through the House. But bills to repeal the death penalty, decriminalize marijuana, ban cell phones while driving and create a process for annulling mental health records will be trickier.

Decriminalizing the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana probably won’t gain support in the Senate, but senators could look at reducing penalties, Senate Majority Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, said.

“I don’t think that the Senate will go for just a traffic ticket for marijuana; however, I don’t think we want to see first time offenders with a lifetime’s worth of problems,” he said.

A House bill to ban the use of handheld cell phones while driving should get a debate, but passage is uncertain, Bradley said. He said the state already has a strong distracted driving law that touches on everything from using a cellphone to eating while driving. Likewise, a bill raising the juvenile age for criminal punishment from 17 to 18 is a tossup. Bradley said he’s interested in hearing all the facts, such as whether raising the age in the 1990s deterred youth crime, before making up his mind.

A vote on repealing the death penalty could go either way in the Senate as well. Last fall, senators were divided on the issue when interviewed by the Monitor. At least one Republican plans to support repeal, while at least one Democrat plans to vote against it. Party leaders aren’t pushing their members to vote either way, Bradley said.

On the House side, lawmakers will take up a bill passed just last week in the Senate that creates a process for people to annul their mental health records and regain the right to purchase guns.

The House failed to pass a bill strengthening the background checks system earlier this session.

Still, it’s hard to see a bill that could put guns in the hands of the mentally ill pass through the Democratic-led chamber without careful consideration and a lengthy debate.

A bill that’s certain to go to a conference committee is one dealing with how to spend a $15.3 million surplus from the last budget. Democrats, and therefore the House, want to put $7 million into the Department of Health and Human Services, while Republicans, and therefore the Senate, want all $15 million to go to the Rainy Day fund.

The House and Senate must act on all bills from the other chamber by May 15 before lawmakers head to committees of conference. Let the wheeling and dealing begin.

Fallon and Brown: Comedy duo?

Scott Brown, a potential candidate for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, gave a gift to Democrats last week when he told the Associated Press he probably didn’t have the best credentials to run in New Hampshire “ ’cause, you know, whatever.”

He also gave a gift to late-night comedians. On the Tonight Show last week, host Jimmy Fallon poked fun at Brown’s comment by suggesting some new campaign slogans for him.

“I’m Scott Brown, if you have time vote for me, but if not that’s cool. #totescool,” said one of the ads. “Hey sup,” was another suggested campaign slogan.

The New Hampshire Democratic Party posted and promoted the video, as well as the quote, as a means of showing Brown’s desire to get back to Washington trumps his commitment to New Hampshire.

Brown, who is known for sometimes being thin-skinned, seemed to take Fallon’s jabs in stride. “Appreciate the help on campaign slogans,” Brown tweeted at Fallon, to which Fallon responded “No biggie.”

Is all publicity good publicity?

Garcia in GOP spotlight

State Rep. Marilinda Garcia, a Salem Republican, may be missing some of the biggest votes at the State House, but she’s certainly making a name for herself in her bid for Congress.

Garcia, 31, is running against former state senator Gary Lambert in a primary for the right to challenge Democratic 2nd District Rep. Annie Kuster.

In the past month, she spoke on a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference, did an interview about young people in politics on Fox & Friends, and has been the subject of lengthy interviews with Roll Call and the Daily Caller, two Washington-based political publications.

But back in Concord, she missed House votes on Medicaid expansion and legalizing a casino, which would likely have gone in her hometown of Salem. On the Medicaid vote, her spokesman Tom Szold said she did vote against the bill in the House Finance Committee but missed the floor vote due to a prior commitment.

“Marilinda has a strong record of opposition to Obamacare’s expansion of government and has consistently voted against efforts to implement the resultant mandates within NH,” Szold said in an email.

As a candidate with relatively low name recognition statewide, it’s smart for Garcia to be courting media attention. But come primary day in September, and possibly the general election, voters will likely want to know if they can count on her for a vote.

Rubens: Second Amendment champion

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jim Rubens spent last week touring the state on a “Second Amendment Protection Tour.” This appears aimed at peeling supporters away from Brown, who voted for an assault weapons ban as a state lawmaker in Massachusetts. The vote could prove a weakness for Brown in New Hampshire, and Rubens is ready to fill that void. In a news release about his tour, Rubens proudly noted he earned an A rating from the National Rifle Association when he was a state senator.

“There is a genuine concern among New Hampshire gun owners, retailers and local manufacturers that their rights are being threatened by ‘Washington-knows-best’ crowd. I am out there assuring them that as U.S. senator, I will vigorously defend their rights, my record proves that,” Rubens said in the release.

His tour took him to several gun and sporting goods shops across the state. The week before, he spoke at a Gun Owners of New Hampshire meeting and toured a rifle barrels manufacturing facility.

What to watch

∎ Neither the House nor Senate will meet this week. Instead, committees will hold hearings and work sessions on bills sent over from the either chamber.

This means lobbyists and the public will have another chance to have their voices heard on issues from the death penalty to how the state evaluates new energy proposals.

∎ The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday at 1 p.m. on an amendment to the state Constitution that would bar discrimination based on sexual orientation. The amendment unanimously passed the Senate.

∎ The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on repealing the death penalty Thursday at 9 a.m.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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