New anti-gambling group Casino Free New Hampshire joins debate
There’s a new anti-casino group in New Hampshire, this one made up of mostly Democrats who back Gov. Maggie Hassan’s increased spending on education and mental health care but vehemently oppose her reliance on casino money.
Called Casino Free New Hampshire, the nonprofit says it will join the 20-year-old Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling in trying to defeat a casino bill currently before the House.
“Supporters of gambling court us with their siren song about the money gambling will raise to meet unmet needs,” said Lew Feldstein, former president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, at a press conference yesterday. “These numbers just don’t hold up. Neither in the short term or the long term.”
Feldstein went on to say, “It doesn’t make sense to meet unmet needs by creating more unmet needs.”
If there is any doubt about how passionate the casino debate is going to be, groups on the other side of the issue fired off angry press releases blasting Casino Free New Hampshire shortly after it introduced itself.
Joe Casey, president of New Hampshire Building and Construction Trades Council, was among them.
“What we saw today is a bunch of nothing,” Casey wrote in an email. “No plan to fund services. No plan to restore funding for higher education. No plan to help create jobs. Their privileged indifference to the real needs of the people in our state is appalling.”
The new group’s supporters yesterday included the following Democrats: Sen. Martha Fuller Clark of Portsmouth, Rep. Christy Bartlett of Concord, Rep. Marjorie Smith of Durham, former senator Harold Janeway of Webster, former attorney general Phil McLaughlin of Laconia, former state representative Carol Moore of Concord and Alex Ray, founder of the Common Man restaurants.
Also present yesterday was Episcopal Bishop Robert Hirschfeld and Alice Chamberlin of Warner, who worked for Hassan’s transition team, advising her on natural resources, energy and transportation policy.
“No one can reasonably argue with the fact that gambling has destroyed people’s lives through addiction,” Hirschfeld said. “Individuals and families have been ruined. It makes little sense that a state whose slogan is ‘Live Free or Die’ would pin its final hopes on an activity that . . . exacts a social and spiritual toll.”
The group’s timing yesterday was intentional.
On Tuesday, the casino bill, which has already passed the Senate, will get its first public hearing in the House, where it’s in for a much tougher fight.
Hassan has pushed the bill on two fronts: first as a way to add jobs and boost the economy, and more recently as the only way the state can increase support to higher education, highways and mental health services.
The bill sailed through the Senate, 16-8, but in the House, Democrats and Republicans have historically joined to defeat expanded gambling. This time is different, though, because unlike her predecessor, Hassan, a Democrat, has asked her party to join her in voting for the casino bill.
House Speaker Terie Norelli, a Portsmouth Democrat, has assigned the bill to two House committees – Ways and Means and Finance – and the public hearing is set for 10 a.m. in Representatives Hall, the Legislature’s largest meeting space.
On Wednesday, the joint committee will reconvene across the street at the Legislative Office Building to hear from experts and discuss how members will divvy up work on the bill. Feldstein said Casino Free New Hampshire supporters will be calling and meeting with House members before they vote on the bill.
Anticipating significant interest from the public and others, the House has arranged to have both Tuesday’s public hearing and the Wednesday session available online at gencourt.state.nh.us/house.
‘Same old tired arguments’
Millennium Gaming has been the most public about its intentions to seek the single “high-end” casino license allowed under the bill and use it to build a casino at Rockingham Park in Salem. Millennium spokesman Rich Killion dismissed the new group’s comments in a written statement yesterday.
“This morning’s press conference just offered the same old tired arguments by the same people who have been making them for well over a decade,” Killion wrote. “Recycled and repackaged lines of fears that have not materialized in so many of the states that have had a limited expansion of casino gambling offers nothing new to this debate.”
Asked yesterday about the new group’s plans to fight the casino bill, Hassan’s spokesman said the group’s supporters didn’t suggest another way to pay for the state’s needs.
“Licensing one high-end, highly regulated casino will help fund the priorities that are critical for creating jobs and building a more innovative economic future, and it is a plan that is supported by a majority of Granite Staters, both Democrats and Republicans,” Marc Goldberg said in an email.
“We appreciate the support demonstrated (by Casino Free New Hampshire) for the priorities in the governor’s budget, but as we have seen in the House budget, without the license fee from a casino, there will be significant cuts to school building aid, health care services, and our university system, putting the proposed tuition freeze at risk. It is unclear how casino opponents suggest funding those priorities and others without moving forward with a plan for one high-end casino.”
Casino Free New Hampshire backers, especially Smith, a House Democrat who served 12 years on the House Finance Committee, said the budget passed by the House earlier this month does increase spending on higher education and mental health services without the $80 million from a casino license that Hassan put in her budget.
When asked by a reporter about the jobs casino supporters say the bill would bring, Smith cut him off.
“Do you mean the minimum wage jobs that would be in the casino?” Smith asked. “Or do you mean the construction jobs? I’d rather have people out there building roads and bridges than building whatever a high-end casino is.”
Another reporter asked Smith about Hassan’s tactics to advance the casino bill, by selling it as a jobs and economy bill and then as a means to increase support for higher education and mental health. Smith said, “The governor is much better at the politics than I am. I have never been good at the politics. I get hung up on policy.”
Smith said Hassan sold the bill as a way to support the state’s needs – until the House passed a budget without the casino money. Then, Smith said, Hassan returned to her jobs and economy pitch.
“There is a difference between marketing and policy,” Smith said. “And there is a difference between politics and policy. And nobody is better than the governor at getting people to pay attention and to listen. Policy is dull and boring. So I just take my hat off to the governor.”
(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323,
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)