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Gambling in the Granite State

Casino foes make pitch to House members

A longtime House Democrat yesterday urged her colleagues to resist Gov. Maggie Hassan’s sales pitch that a casino is the only way to increase support for higher education and developmental and mental health care.

“That is not how the budget works,” said Rep. Marjorie Smith of Durham, who served six years on the House Finance Committee. She credited Hassan, a Democrat, for sticking to her campaign promise to back a casino but disputed her money argument.

“It’s not either or,” Smith said. “You can be opposed to gambling and you can support these programs.” Smith predicted the soon-to-be released House budget will include money for higher education and care for people with disabilities and mental illness without relying on a casino.

Smith spoke to nearly 150 lawmakers at a midday lunch hosted by the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling. The group has held similar sessions before but scheduled this year’s early to get ahead of the casino debate coming to the House.

Within the next few weeks, the House is expected to take up a Senate bill that would allow a single casino anywhere in the state. It’s coming to the House with support of Hassan and a majority of state senators, all of whom have described the bill as the state’s best hope of finding more money for higher education and social services.

Jim Rubens, chairman of the anti-gambling group, said yesterday he is especially interested in connecting with new lawmakers who haven’t heard the gambling debate before. Rubens also said many House members had asked the group for more information.

Joining Smith in opposing a casino yesterday was Concord developer Steve Duprey, former attorney general Phil McLaughlin and Lew Feldstein, former president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

Duprey’s properties include hotels, and he has been a booster for the local arts scene, including the Capital Center for the Arts. A casino, Duprey said, would threaten the livelihood of the state’s hospitality and cultural venues.

Duprey, a Republican, cited a study that predicted a single casino in New Hampshire would increase spending on gambling by 25 percent and cut spending at other entertainment businesses by 7 to 15 percent. Casinos have a bigger advertising budget and can pay bands and other entertainers more than smaller venues can, he said.

But that’s only half the threat, Duprey said.

“Everybody has a finite number of recreation dollars,” he said. “You are kidding yourself if you think putting a casino in Salem will not have an impact on these other venues.” The Senate casino bill does not say the casino would be in Salem, but owners of Rockingham Park in Salem have said they will seek a casino license.

Feldstein, a Democrat, questioned the economic benefits a casino would bring the state. He also disputed a new argument from Senate Democrats that supporting a casino is the morally correct thing to do because it would bring the state desperately needed money.

“Is it moral to do this when we know this casino will generate (more gambling) addicts, to say nothing to damage done to family and friends?” Feldstein asked.

“It’s a tough choice because you feel the pressure you should to meet the needs of our state,” he said. “But the assumption that you are being asked to make is that there are no other revenues. Is that true? That’s the choice you need to make. But I’m asking you to make this choice with great care.”

McLaughlin, a Democrat, said he has no moral objection to gambling but joins the attorneys general who served before and after him in opposing expanded gambling.

He recalled a letter he received upon taking office from then-U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who served as attorney general from 1976 to 1978. Souter told McLaughlin that “of all the things that can happen in the state, the one thing that can change the . . . culture of this state is the expansion of gambling.”

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

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