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Capital Beat

Bill to license two casinos passes Senate committee

A bill that would allow for two casinos in the state and establish a new regulatory framework passed the Senate Ways and Means Committee yesterday, 4-1.

But the full Senate will likely hold onto the proposal until it sees the fate of a different casino bill before the House, Senate President Chuck Morse said after the committee’s hearing. While the Senate likely has the votes to pass a casino bill, the House has traditionally opposed expanded gambling.

The bill, proposed by Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat, would allow a competitive bidding process on two casinos, one with an $80 million license fee and the other with a $40 million fee. It would also establish a new gambling commission to regulate the casinos and a gambling enforcement unit in the state police. The bill would distribute revenue from the casinos among the state’s transportation plan, higher education, economic development and the host and neighboring communities.

While the hearing room was filled with representatives of many groups that oppose casino gambling, such as Cornerstone Action, the New Hampshire Council of Churches and the Capitol Center for the Arts, only three people testified after D’Allesandro. They included a representative from Casino Free New Hampshire and two police chiefs, all in opposition to a casino.

D’Allesandro’s bill is the only measure before the Legislature this year that would license two casinos, and he said that was meant to satisfy critics who said having only one casino would create a monopoly. Under his bill, the two casinos would have to be at least 30 miles apart. One would be allowed to operate up to 160 table games and 3,500 video slot machines, while the other would be limited to 80 table games and 1,500 video slot machines.

During yesterday’s hearing, D’Allesandro said the bill would create at least 1,000 jobs when accounting for construction and casino employment, and is a much-needed, nontax economic stimulus for the state. Gambling operators would keep 69 percent of the revenue from video lottery machines. Here’s how the rest would be distributed:

∎ Three percent would go to the town or city where the casino is located.

∎ Two percent would be divided among abutting municipalities.

∎ One percent would go toward treating problem gambling.

∎ The other 25 percent would be allocated toward the commission’s administrative and operating costs, the state’s 10-year transportation plan, the public higher education fund, and economic development in the North Country and the state’s 10 counties.

Of the revenue from table games, 14 percent would go to the state’s education trust fund and the casinos would keep the rest.

“The bill is an economic recovery, job-creation package that I think is desperately needed in New Hampshire, and it’s been needed for a period of time,” said D’Allesandro, who has been fighting for a casino for more than a decade.

Jim Putnam, of Casino Free New Hampshire and the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, said any new revenue from the casinos would be negated by the costs of increased crime and addiction. If the state begins relying on casino revenue to fund its budgets, it will lead to a downward spiral of licensing more casinos if revenue projections aren’t met, he said.

“This money is not worth the cost to our state’s quality of life and family-friendly reputation,” he said.

Kensington police Chief Michael Sielicki spoke against the bill on behalf of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police. He said the state needs to stop looking to a casino as the only means for repairing the state’s roads. He also said the regulatory framework would build the state’s bureaucracy at a time when the state can barely sustain the current retirement system.

Eddie Edwards, police chief in South Hampton, said the bill would be bad public policy because casinos make money when gamblers lose. And when the state doesn’t fully fund its alcohol and tobacco addiction programs, it’s hard to believe a gambling addiction program will be fully funded.

The bill, he said, “wagers on New Hampshire losing, its citizens losing.”

Sen. Jim Rausch, a Derry Republican and member of the Ways and Means committee, is a co-sponsor of a House bill the Senate is waiting on, which would authorize one casino in southeastern New Hampshire. Like D’Allesandro’s bill, it would also establish a gambling commission and an enforcement unit. Unlike D’Allesandro’s bill, it would give lawmakers control over the distribution of revenue to regulatory controls and communities.

That bill is set for a public hearing Feb. 6.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3390 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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