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Gambling in the Granite State

House likely to make big changes to casino bill

  • A joint House committee discussed the casino bill in the Legislative Office Building on Thursday afternoon, May 9, 2013. Millennium Gaming unveiled latest plans for a casino in Salem on Wednesday. Next week the committee will vote on the bill, and from there it will go to the House floor.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    A joint House committee discussed the casino bill in the Legislative Office Building on Thursday afternoon, May 9, 2013. Millennium Gaming unveiled latest plans for a casino in Salem on Wednesday. Next week the committee will vote on the bill, and from there it will go to the House floor.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • A joint House committee discussed the casino bill in the Legislative Office Building on Thursday afternoon, May 9, 2013. Millennium Gaming unveiled latest plans for a casino in Salem on Wednesday. Next week the committee will vote on the bill, and from there it will go to the House floor.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    A joint House committee discussed the casino bill in the Legislative Office Building on Thursday afternoon, May 9, 2013. Millennium Gaming unveiled latest plans for a casino in Salem on Wednesday. Next week the committee will vote on the bill, and from there it will go to the House floor.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Rep. Patricia Lovejoy, D-Stratham, chairs a House subcommittee which is studying community impacts of the casino bill. She addressed a joint House committee, starting with charity gaming, at the Legislative Office Building on Thursday afternoon, May 9, 2013. Millennium Gaming unveiled latest plans for a casino in Salem on Wednesday. Next week the committee will vote on the bill, and from there it will go to the House floor.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Rep. Patricia Lovejoy, D-Stratham, chairs a House subcommittee which is studying community impacts of the casino bill. She addressed a joint House committee, starting with charity gaming, at the Legislative Office Building on Thursday afternoon, May 9, 2013. Millennium Gaming unveiled latest plans for a casino in Salem on Wednesday. Next week the committee will vote on the bill, and from there it will go to the House floor.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • A joint House committee discussed the casino bill in the Legislative Office Building on Thursday afternoon, May 9, 2013. Millennium Gaming unveiled latest plans for a casino in Salem on Wednesday. Next week the committee will vote on the bill, and from there it will go to the House floor.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • A joint House committee discussed the casino bill in the Legislative Office Building on Thursday afternoon, May 9, 2013. Millennium Gaming unveiled latest plans for a casino in Salem on Wednesday. Next week the committee will vote on the bill, and from there it will go to the House floor.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Rep. Patricia Lovejoy, D-Stratham, chairs a House subcommittee which is studying community impacts of the casino bill. She addressed a joint House committee, starting with charity gaming, at the Legislative Office Building on Thursday afternoon, May 9, 2013. Millennium Gaming unveiled latest plans for a casino in Salem on Wednesday. Next week the committee will vote on the bill, and from there it will go to the House floor.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

The casino bill that came over from the Senate this spring is likely going to look quite different when it reaches the House floor this month.

After studying the Senate’s casino bill for three weeks, a joint House committee said yesterday it has found a lot of things it would like to change, from the license fee to which state agency regulates a casino.

And several members expressed concern about moving ahead with a casino before the state has written rules and regulations for expanded gambling.

“There are a lot of challenges, but we have identified a lot of things that can allow us to go forward,” said Rep. David Huot, a Laconia Democrat who led a subcommittee that studied the bill’s regulations on a casino. “I’m not taking a position one way or the other on the bill. I view our process as one that leads to a bill, that if passed, would be an acceptable product.”

In addition to Huot’s subcommittee, two other subcommittees – one focused on revenue, the other on community impact – met several times to hear from experts. They reconvened yesterday to share their impressions of the bill.

The joint committee – made up of the House Finance and Ways and Means committees – is scheduled to vote on the bill Wednesday. Yesterday, Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat in charge of the House Finance Committee, asked members to get their amendments to her by Tuesday afternoon.

There are likely to be many.

Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican, who chaired the revenue subcommittee, said his group, which met nine times, found five strengths in the bill and 10 weaknesses.

As strengths, Kurk identified the additional revenue a casino would bring to the state’s general fund and the potential to locate it on the Massachusetts border. That location would shift a lot of the social costs associated with casino gambling to the Bay State, he said.

But Kurk’s committee identified several proposed changes to the bill:

∎ Change the $80 million license fee in the bill to a minimum bid of $50 million. The state could then get whatever the market would bear, he said.

∎ Limit the single casino license to 20 years with an option that a casino could reapply for it. It’s currently a 10-year license with an annual renewal fee.

∎ Increase the tax rate on slot machines to a minimum of 33.3 percent (it’s 30 percent) and to a minimum of 16 percent on table games (not the 14 percent in the bill).

∎ Lower the money given to the host community from 3 percent to 1 percent and dedicate no money to the North Country. The Senate bill allots that area 10 percent of net machine income. Kurk’s committee would have all the casino revenue go to the state’s general fund, and it could be allocated to different projects or areas from there.

∎ Require a casino developer to invest at least $400 million into a casino and prohibit any of that investment from including the licensee fee, land purchase or road improvements. The bill now requires a minimum investment of $425 million that can include those other items.

Kurk also said the bill needs a hefty penalty for a casino developer if the casino doesn’t open and operate on time. He suggested $100,000 a day that it’s behind schedule.

Kurk said his committee’s goal was to ensure the state could get as much money as possible out of a casino. He also said the state would be wise to solicit expert advice on license fees, casino taxes and regulations before licensing a casino.

The regulation subcommittee, led by Huot, expressed the same concern about regulations. Rep. David Hess, a Hooksett Republican who co-chaired that committee, reminded lawmakers that a prior Legislature had set aside $250,000 to hire those experts before proceeding with expanded gambling.

The experts were identified, at a cost less than $50,000, but the Executive Council refused to authorize the contracts. Hess said that was a missed opportunity.

That committee also questioned whether the Lottery Commission, which would regulate a casino under the Senate’s bill, is the most qualified agency for that job. Huot also said his group believed the attorney general’s office needed a larger role than the Senate’s bill allows.

Huot’s committee also noted that while the Senate bill legalizes a casino, it does not actually legalize expanded gambling.

Rep. Patricia Lovejoy, a Stratham Democrat, led the subcommittee that studied community impact. Like the other groups, her subcommittee cited several concerns about the Senate bill.

Although the bill seeks to ensure charitable gaming is protected if a casino opens, the charitable game operators would be taxed at a higher rate than a casino and be required to sell a certain amount of food to hold onto their liquor license. A casino would not.

She said other states have started with just one casino, as the Senate bill proposes, but none has been able to keep it to just one.

The bill does not adequately ensure that construction and casino jobs would go to New Hampshire residents, a real concern if the casino is built near the Massachusetts border, she said.

She also cited concerns about an increase in problem gaming and other social costs. Lovejoy also cited a clause in the Massachusetts law that allows the host community to negotiate its own agreement with a casino, detailing what a casino will pay the community each year and what other investments it will make.

That is not an option in the Senate’s bill.

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

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