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Gambling in the Granite State

House budget writers not counting on casino revenue

A poker player takes his anti from his stack of chips during a game of Texas Hold 'em, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, in Las Vegas. Poker has never been a big moneymaker like slot machines or roulette. In Sin City, epicenter of the poker craze, at least eight rooms have folded in the past two years. The trend is also playing out in Mississippi riverboats, Indian casinos and gambling halls near big cities from California to Florida. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

A poker player takes his anti from his stack of chips during a game of Texas Hold 'em, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, in Las Vegas. Poker has never been a big moneymaker like slot machines or roulette. In Sin City, epicenter of the poker craze, at least eight rooms have folded in the past two years. The trend is also playing out in Mississippi riverboats, Indian casinos and gambling halls near big cities from California to Florida. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

The governor and state Senate may already have plans for the $80 million attached to the casino bill senators passed last week, but that revenue isn’t likely to be in the House budget coming this month.

Several House members tasked with writing that budget said yesterday they’re not willing – even able – to consider casino revenue until House members vote on the bill. And Rep. Susan Almy, a Lebanon Democrat and chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the earliest she can schedule a public hearing on the casino bill will be the end of the month – the same week the House budget is to be printed.

“It’s not being talked about as possible revenue because we have no idea whether the people in the Legislature are going to vote for it or not,” Almy said. A casino “is not current law. In fact, it’s illegal in this state.”

At best, Almy and others said, the casino money could make it into the budget this spring, once it’s in the Senate – but only if the House passes the bill.

That scenario raises questions about which of Gov. Maggie Hassan’s budget priorities – increased support for higher education, developmental disabilities, mental health care and vulnerable children – will make it into the House’s budget. Hassan, a Democrat, has said she’d pay for those investments by legalizing a single casino and collecting an $80 million license fee over the biennium.

Casino bills have cleared the state Senate before but never the House. Vote counters on both sides of the issue say they’re optimistic but have declined to share their polling research. The Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling has invited lawmakers to a lunch Wednesday to make its case against casinos.

Supporters say they are hopeful this year is different because Hassan, unlike her predecessor, supports expanded gambling and her party holds the majority in the House. She asked the Democratic caucus for its support last week.

But predicting what House budget writers will include on either side of the ledger is like reading tea leaves, at least for now.

Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat and chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, said she wasn’t ready yesterday to say what will or won’t be in the budget that goes to the House floor later this month.

“Nothing is finalized,” Wallner said, adding that her committee is still taking comments on spending priorities from the public. Committee members are scheduled to hold hearings in Rochester and Claremont tonight. And, Wallner said, the Senate’s casino bill has not yet come before the House.

Wallner and Almy said they’re comfortable with some of Hassan’s ideas for increased revenue, including a bump in the cigarette tax, depending on how the full House feels. The House budget will also replace some of the state tax auditors cut last year and money from business tax breaks Hassan wants to reverse.

But the budget probably will not include Hassan’s proposed $80 million from a casino license fee.

“I don’t think it would be a good step for the finance committee (to include casino revenue) until we know how the rest of the House feels about it,” Wallner said. “It’s a very, very big decision.”

Rep. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat, leads the House’s finance subcommittee that oversees the state Department of Health and Human Services. She said her committee has been focused on finding savings within that agency’s budget, in part by accounting for a decrease in the agency’s caseloads.

She doesn’t foresee casino revenue in the proposed House budget. “We don’t have any sense yet that if the House is going to pass the gambling bill,” Rosenwald said. “And I don’t think anybody knows where the votes are.”

Almy, Wallner and Rosenwald have all voted against casino bills in the past. Almy remains opposed, she said yesterday. Wallner and Rosenwald said they aren’t sure and need to see what the bill looks like when it reaches the House floor.

Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican, who also serves on the House Finance Committee, said he considers it impossible for the House to include casino revenue in its budget because the casino bill hasn’t reached the House.

“When we do the budget, we do it on existing law,” Kurk said. “Not on some change in the law that occurs at the time or after the budget is written.”

Kurk has also voted against expanded gambling in the past, and like Almy, remains opposed. Kurk pointed to casinos in other states that have seen their revenue decline, some enough that they’ve sought subsidies from their state governments.

“I can’t think of a worse long-term decision that this Legislature could make for the state than to adopt the Senate proposal on gambling,” Kurk said. “There are so many problems with that.”

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

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