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New regulations change little in public debate over casinos

The Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority’s work on adding strict regulations to a bill allowing for one casino seems to have done little to change public debate, with supporters and opponents mostly reiterating familiar arguments during a four-hour hearing yesterday.

“There are definitely people, and this is true on either side of the issue, who are committed to their position,” said Rep. Richard Ames, a Jaffrey Democrat who chaired the authority that developed the bill. “I think probably the people who are quietest are the ones who are thinking most.”

The House Ways and Means Committee heard from law enforcement, labor groups, leaders of other entertainment venues and many more speakers, with supporters saying a casino would bring jobs and much-needed revenue, while opponents said it would damage the state’s tourism and create gambling addicts. Few speakers referenced the increased regulations, which, in part, define the role of the attorney general and state police in regulating casinos, lay out a code of ethics for a new gambling commission that will oversee the casino and require operators to work with neighboring entertainment venues to mitigate harm to those businesses.

Gov. Maggie Hassan has thrown her support behind this bill and reminded lawmakers in yesterday’s State of the State speech that the authority drew it up partly in response to criticisms about a lack of regulation. She said the bill appropriately lays out how the state would monitor a casino.

She urged lawmakers to examine the bill and see that “we can do this in a way that works for our state.”

Ames said the authority estimated a casino would create more than 2,000 jobs between construction and permanent positions and bring in more than $100 million in revenue. The bill says a portion of that must go to address problem gambling, but it’s up to the committee to come up with a breakdown of revenue. The casino allowed under the bill could have up to 5,000 slot machines and 150 table games.

“It’s enabling legislation,” Ames said of the bill. “It doesn’t mandate a thing. It enables casino gambling in New Hampshire and sets limits on what can be done if someone steps forward and wants to take advantage.”

Of the nine voting members on the oversight authority, only Attorney General Joe Foster opposed the bill.

“I understand and appreciate that a casino would, at least on a short-term basis, create construction jobs,” Foster said yesterday. “Increasing revenue and jobs are without a doubt laudable goals, however, both, in my view, are soundly outweighed by the negative aspects a casino would bring.”

Foster also served on then-Gov. John Lynch’s gambling study commission, and said that commission found a casino could bring up to $60 million in social costs, with $23 million borne by government. (Ames, however, told the committee it would be a “fool’s errand” to try to estimate social costs.)

Those costs come, in part, from the nature of slot machines, which are designed to get players addicted, Foster said. They also bring in the majority of revenue for casinos, and no operator would want a license for only table games, Foster said.

“You’d have no takers. Why? The lion’s share of the revenue and tax dollars the operator and state would receive comes from slot machines,” Foster said. “The machines do exactly what they’re designed to do: keep the gamblers gambling.”

Several dozen labor union workers packed into the room wearing blue shirts that said “CASINO = NH JOBS” and holding signs bearing a similar message.

Diana Lacey, president of the State Employees’ Association, said the state is facing a jobs crisis and can’t afford to put it off any longer. Young workers are migrating out of the state while older workers are migrating in, which will eventually lead to a strain on public programs when current workers retire.

“We’ve spent 20 years debating revenue solutions,” she said. “We are running out of time – Father Time has not stopped for our 20-year debate. (This bill) will create thousands of jobs.”

But several opponents said the creation of a casino could also make the state lose jobs in places such as restaurants or entertainment venues close by. Steve Duprey, a Concord developer and member of the Republican National Committee, has been a vocal opponent of casinos and works with Casino Free New Hampshire.

“New Hampshire has an iconic tourism brand that we have built with grit and not much money,” he said, adding that a casino would “obliterate” 50 years of marketing in places such as Meredith and Franconia.

Furthermore, Duprey said the argument that the state “needs the money” isn’t solid enough to stand on its own. Hassan built her budget around casino revenue, he noted, but was able to craft a budget accepted by members from both parties even without that money.

“We do not have such a chronic need for this revenue that we are willing to put up with the burdens and the cost and the damage to our brand,” he said.

The committee was not able to take all of the testimony yesterday due to time constraints, and will take more starting at 9 a.m. today, before it hears three other gambling-related bills. The committee will also hold three work sessions on the bill next Tuesday, Thursday and Feb. 18 to work on regulations, community impact and revenue, respectively.

Based on past votes, the committee will likely have a close vote in deciding whether to recommend the full House pass or kill this casino bill. Of the committee’s 20 members, 10 voted to kill last year’s one-casino bill from the Senate. Nine voted not to kill it, and Rep. Joe Osgood, a Claremont Republican elected in a special election last year, was not present for the vote.

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

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