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Gambling in the Granite State

Senate passes casino bill, 16-8

A casino bill that Gov. Maggie Hassan needs for her proposed budget overwhelmingly passed the state Senate yesterday, thanks in large part to Democrats who said turning down casino revenue would be immoral if that money could restore funds for education, roads and care for the mentally ill.

Sen. David Watters, a Dover Democrat who opposed expanded gambling during his two terms in the House, voted for the bill, which would allow one casino anywhere in the state. Watters acknowledged concerns that a casino comes with social costs but did so with a different perspective.

“What is the social cost of (underfunding) education?” Watters asked on the Senate floor. “What is the social cost of saying no to thousands of jobs? You say those aren’t good jobs? Tell that to the bricklayer. Tell that to the unemployed workers.”

The bill passed, 16-8, with yes votes from nine Democrats and seven Republicans. It now heads to the House, where it faces a tougher test. House members have historically rejected expanded gambling, and neither the Republican nor the Democratic leadership has embraced this bill.

But Hassan, a Democrat, has given lawmakers a difficult choice, writing a budget that counts on $80 million from a casino license to boost support for higher education, road work, North Country economic development and social services over the next two years. Once the casino is open, the state would tax its net proceeds 14 percent to 30 percent, under the bill as it’s now written.

House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat who has voted against previous casino bills, said yesterday the Democratic caucus in the House is split on the bill headed over from the Senate. “I’m still weighing how I feel,” he said.

House Minority Leader Rep. Gene Chandler, a Bartlett Republican, said in a statement that his caucus remains concerned that Hassan’s budget relies on legalizing a casino.

“Many Republicans thought it was irresponsible for her to base our state’s fiscal health on something that is not even legal in the state,” Chandler said. “The House finance committee will be moving forward, creating a budget that does not count on expanded gaming revenue, as they should. Even if some sort of gaming proposal should pass, it’s highly unlikely that we would see any revenue in time for this budget cycle.”

Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, a Portsmouth Democrat, was the only senator to speak against the bill during yesterday’s debate. “Introducing casino gambling into the state is the wrong way to raise money to fund mental health, transportation and higher education,” she said.

Sen. John Reagan, a Deerfield Republican, joined Fuller Clark in voting against the bill. After the vote, Reagan said he doesn’t believe a casino will deliver the money Hassan and the bill’s supporters predict. “No other state has seen the fulfillment of the revenues promised from casino gambling,” he said.

It was mostly Democrats who spoke for the bill yesterday.

“I support (the casino bill) and not because I am a supporter of gambling,” said Sen. Molly Kelly, a Keene Democrat. “But I rise as a strong proponent of the priorities that are reflected in the governor’s budget. They reflect my priorities for the people I represent.”

Kelly highlighted state cuts to higher education and community mental health care, saying the state for too long has incarcerated people with mental illness rather than treat them.

“I would . . . argue that placing those with mental illness in our jails and prisons is immoral,” said Kelly. “I would go as far as to say it’s uncivilized.”

She said she’d consider another revenue source if she could. “There are no other options on the table,” she said. “Nor is there likely to be.”

Sen. Sylvia Larsen, a Concord Democrat, said she was “reluctantly” supporting the casino bill, although she has voted for expanded gambling in the past. She said the state already allows gambling – with its lottery and charity gaming.

Larsen also cited competition from casinos in Maine and those under way in Massachusetts. The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies has said the state will lose $75 million in rooms and meals taxes and other revenue to those casinos.

“I say the moral question is the fact that our governor has written a budget that restores funding to education and takes care of our most vulnerable and (supports) transportation,” Larsen said. “What does it say about us morally if we do nothing?”

The casino bill would award a single casino license through a competitive bid and allow 150 table games and up to 5,000 slot machines. Table game proceeds would be taxed at 14 percent. Slot machines would be taxed at 30 percent, with most of the money directed to road projects, higher education and economic development, some of it in the North Country. There would also be money set aside to treat gambling addiction.

The winner of the bid would have to invest $425 million into the casino but that amount could include the license fee and any money spent buying land for a casino.

This story has been updated.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

Legacy Comments5

Yup changeisgood, as long it is not in their backyard. NH is a bit late in the casino game. Where that casino is put will have an impact on how well it does. If it is too close to the MA border it will be in competition with their casino. I believe up north is the best location to get the tourists using it. I am not a big fan of casinos either, but because we refuse to audit our state govt depts on all levels, the out of control spending will continue in those depts. Just liket he federal govt, we have depts here that are not needed, overspend, and duplicate jobs. Till that changes, the govt will keep spoending, wasting and be incompetent. Govt does not manage or run well on the state or federal level.

The answer is marijuana, not gambling. The charitable gaming system we have now is great for non-profit organizations, and the people who want to gamble a little. A casino will create jobs, but will also take many away. Take a page from Colorado and Washington... legalize marijuana, tax it and regulate it the way NH does with its liquor, and there would be plenty of money to be made.

We already have enough issues with alcohol without having a bunch of stoners running around causing public safety issues. Want a "Rocky Mountain high"? Take a trip to Colorado.

Of note: most senators who voted for a casino in NH did so knowing that casino is not going to be sited in their community. And while the specter of a casino whose ill effects won't affect your community directly is still out there, no one is spending time looking for alternate ways to more stably bring in that same $80 million over 2 years. To me, that's the immorality of all this.

There is a casino near Bensalem, PA. It sits off of the road a few hundred yards, if it was not lit so bright, no one would know that it is there. Immorality? I find it humorous that progressives call gambling immoral but find that abortion is not, or homosexuality???

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