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Supercommittee recommends N.H. casino bill be killed; next stop is House floor

The push to legalize casino gambling in New Hampshire will face its critical test next week when the House votes on a bill that passed the Senate two months ago but was opposed yesterday by a special House committee that spent a month studying it.

Yesterday’s vote by members of the budget and revenue panels was razor thin: 23-22 in favor of recommending the full House kill Senate Bill 152. Gambling opponents hailed the vote while supporters of casino gambling, including several key senators, called it disappointing.

“The joint committee spent three weeks attempting to address the failings of SB 152 but could not overcome the bill’s inadequacies,” said Lew Feldstein, a leader of Casino Free New Hampshire.

But Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat and one of the bill’s strongest supporters, said the narrow margin was an encouraging sign.

“I think momentum is growing for it, and we’ll be working very hard just to hear concerns of House members as we go forward this week and make sure that we can talk with them about how those concerns are addressed, particularly in the amendments that the supercommittee worked so hard on,” Hassan told reporters.

The House will take up the bill Wednesday. Speaker Terie Norelli, a Portsmouth Democrat who has opposed past proposals for expanded gambling, declined to make a prediction but said she believes the vote will be close.

Both sides are gearing up for the fight.

“Obviously the real game will be played on the House floor,” said Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat and prime sponsor of the casino bill.

Careful study

The casino supercommittee, a combination of the budget writing House Finance Committee and tax writing House Ways and Means Committee, was appointed last month to deal with the casino bill.

The bill would allow a single casino in New Hampshire, offering both table games and slot machines, with an $80 million license fee that Hassan has described as critical to balancing the next state budget.

It passed the Republican-led Senate on a 16-8 vote March 14. But the House, which has a Democratic majority, has traditionally opposed expanded gambling.

The supercommittee spent weeks examining the revenue, regulatory, social and other aspects of the legislation. It wrapped up its work yesterday when it spent four hours discussing proposed changes and the bill itself.

A bipartisan group of 12 pro-casino lawmakers, led by Democratic Reps. Richard Ames of Jaffrey and Katherine Rogers of Concord, proposed a 50-page “omnibus” amendment making changes large and small to the bill.

“The goal is to produce the best possible bill addressing this issue, within the framework of a single highly regulated casino, high-end casino . . . so that when you, and we, each of us, votes on this bill, we’ll know we’re voting on the best possible bill,” Ames said.

Among the changes: a requirement that the casino provide day care for its employees, added protections for existing municipal and nonprofit entertainment venues in the state that could be hurt by the casino and additional regulatory powers for the attorney general.

The amendment also changes the minimum capital investment of $425 million to exclude the costs of the casino license and land for the facility.

Using a “true cost” capital threshold, Rogers said, helps ensure “that it will be the kind of high-end facility that was envisioned by the governor and other folks as they talked about this bill.”

In addition to the omnibus amendment, 16 separate amendments were presented yesterday, ranging from sweeping rewrites of the casino bill to relatively small tweaks.

They included:

∎ A proposal to allow two casinos instead of one, with one located in the White Mountains.

∎ A proposal to establish a new commission to regulate the casino, instead of using the existing New Hampshire Lottery Commission.

∎ Several proposals to tweak the distribution of casino revenue.

∎ A statement clarifying that the state is not responsible for anyone’s gambling losses.

Close vote

But the committee didn’t vote on any of those amendments. As soon as the panel resumed work after lunch, Stratham Democratic Rep. Patricia Lovejoy moved that the committee designate the original bill as “inexpedient to legislate.”

Lovejoy and other opponents expressed a number of concerns about the legislation, including fears that it would lead to proliferation, that profits would flow to out-of-state developers, that charitable gaming would be hurt and that social costs such as problem gambling, crime and suicide would mount.

“SB 152 is not a good bet for New Hampshire,” Lovejoy said.

But supporters defended the bill as, among other things, a solution to the state government’s perennial revenue woes.

“If you’re going to vote against this, then you’d better have an alternative to replace the money that’s lost,” said Rep. Frank Sapareto, a Derry Republican. “Because if you don’t, then you’re voting irresponsibly, in my opinion.”

After an hour and 15 minutes of debate, the committee voted, 23-22, to recommend the full House kill the bill.

Gambling hasn’t traditionally been a partisan issue in New Hampshire, and yesterday’s vote didn’t break along party lines. Twelve Democrats and 11 Republicans voted to kill the bill, while 13 Democrats and nine Republicans voted to support it.

The decision not to vote yesterday on amendments to the bill was blasted by casino supporters. Rep. Peter Leishman, a Peterborough Democrat, called it “patently unfair,” and Democratic Sen. Bette Lasky of Nashua said it was “shameful” for the committee “to prevent thoughtful, fact-based, bipartisan amendments on this bill.”

The committee’s recommendation means that, when the House meets Wednesday, casino supporters must first defeat a motion to kill the bill before they can offer any amendments.

Ames said the omnibus amendment presented yesterday could be the basis for a floor amendment next week. Hassan said she’d be open to some of the amendments discussed yesterday, though she didn’t specify which ones.

Whatever the outcome, the joint House committee’s work was described by participants yesterday as an especially extensive review for a complex and high-stakes piece of legislation.

“We’ve been here for a month. We’ve all heard almost everything that there is to hear,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, the Concord Democrat who chaired the panel.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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