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Gambling in the Granite State

House vote to kill casino bill may reveal nothing

House members soundly defeated the first of two casino proposals they’ll consider this year, voting 249-65 against a bill that would have allowed two casinos, one in the White Mountains, the other on the Massachusetts border.

They also tabled a bill, 170-160, calling for six slot parlors, each in a separate county, at the recommendation of Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican who opposes expanded gambling.

But neither vote was considered a true indicator of the House’s gambling position because the two bills were largely ignored by lobbyists on either side of the debate during committee hearings. And, it is the casino bill coming from the state Senate that has Gov. Maggie Hassan’s support.

Rep. Patricia Lovejoy, a Stratham Democrat, said as much in urging the House to kill the two-casino bill. “Today is not the day to be debating casinos,” she said. “If you want some part of (this bill), consider amending the (bill) that comes over from the Senate.”

Even Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, tempered his response to the vote on the casino bill, noting that the bill had received no attention from Millennium Gaming, which has heavily lobbied lawmakers and the public on behalf of the Senate bill. The Senate’s proposal calls for a single casino license, which Millennium Gaming intends to seek for a casino at Rockingham Park in Salem.

“We expect a much tougher fight over (the Senate bill),” Rubens said in a written statement.

Hassan’s spokesman, Marc Goldberg, said the governor is also looking ahead.

“Gov. Hassan believes New Hampshire should move forward with a plan for one high-end, highly regulated casino to help restore investments in priorities that are critical for creating jobs and building a more innovative economic future, which is why she has been supportive of the bipartisan Senate legislation,” Goldberg said in an email. “That bipartisan bill . . . has significant support from the
public and members of the Legislature, and I think most everyone recognizes and expects that the gambling debate should and will be
centered around that legislation.”

The casino bill defeated yesterday, which was sponsored by Rep. Edmond Gionet, a Lincoln Republican, would have sold two casino licenses for $10 million each. The casino developers would have had to invest at least $10 million in their properties and paid the state a 49 percent tax on net proceeds. Most of the money would have gone toward road and bridge improvements.

The bill did not specify how many slot machines or table games the casinos would have. Critics also said the bill allowed the state too little time to do adequate background checks on the license applicants.

The Senate bill, expected to come to the House next month, contemplates a single $80 million casino license and a $425 million investment in the property. It allows for
5,000 slot machines and 150 table games, and would tax the net proceeds of each at 30 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

Gionet and Rep. Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican and co-sponsor of the House bill, were the only House members to speak for the two-casino bill yesterday.

“The (state) Constitution forbids a monopoly, and if you want a House position (on expanded gambling) that establishes two casinos, you have to pass this,” Gionet said. “Otherwise, you don’t have a position that has any legitimacy.”

The vote to kill the bill passed with the support of 157 Democrats and 92 Republicans.

The slot parlor bill, introduced by Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican, would allow 5,000 slot machines but no table
games. Four of the slot parlors would have 600 machines each and two of the parlors would have 1,300 machines each.

The state would charge a $5 million license fee for each of the smaller parlors
and a $10 million license fee for each of the two
larger ones. Under the bill,
60 percent of the proceeds would go to the state’s general fund.

Vaillancourt said the state could collect between $178 million and $313 million a year based on what slot parlor revenue is in other states.

“Unlike a private business that would reap the profits, the state would reap the profits,” Vaillancourt said. He added that his bill doesn’t target money to specific projects like the other casino bills – on purpose.

“I’m not trying to buy off people who want road improvements,” he said. “This bill doesn’t do any of that.”

The House Ways and Means Committee voted, 12-6, to recommend the bill be killed, and it appeared to be headed that way until Kurk proposed tabling it instead. His reasons, he said, were financial.

Vaillancourt’s bill would bring the state more money in casino revenue than the other two bills, he said.

Kurk put his proposal to table the bill to lawmakers this way: “If I’m pro-gambling and I want to make sure there is a way to maximize revenue to the state, and if I’m opposed to gambling but know
that if it should succeed, I want to maximize revenue, would I now make sure
(that’s an option) by tabling this bill?”

The House agreed, 170-160. The move allows the House to revive the slot parlor bill later as a negotiating position against the Senate’s casino bill.

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

I'm curious, why is it ok to have a casino in southern NH but not Northern? Has the gaming industry bought the legislature to support the Mass/NH border? This is tax free NH and the live free or die state so lets either have casinos for all or not any at all.

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