Freshman House members may direct casino debate
If there’s any doubt today’s House vote on whether to legalize a casino has deeply divided lawmakers, consider this: By yesterday afternoon, there were at least 14 amendments to the Senate’s bill, one of them a full rewrite.
Predictions had casino gambling losing by 40 or 60 votes – or passing by five. The issue has divided both parties, enough that Republicans and Democrats are going against directives from their leadership.
But the first question for lawmakers today is this: Will they get to consider any of those amendments?
When lawmakers take up the Senate’s casino bill, they must first decide whether to kill the bill, as a joint House committee narrowly recommended, or overturn that recommendation in order to consider alternatives to the bill.
That question could well be decided by freshman lawmakers, who unlike their veteran colleagues have not debated casino gambling once, twice or five times before.
Freshman lawmakers like Rep. David Karrick, a Warner Democrat.
Last night, Karrick still didn’t know how he would vote on casino gambling. And Karrick knows more about the issue than most House members because he served on the joint House committee that just spent two months studying the issue.
But Karrick wants to hear more, so he will vote to overturn the committee’s kill recommendation, he said.
“I’m undecided mainly because I don’t think we are going to have any kind of discussion of alternative taxation in the next few years, and we need to raise revenues from somewhere,” Karrick said.
Yet, he’s not convinced the state will see the kind of money from a casino that gambling proponents predict. Karrick wants to know whether there’s an amendment that can allay his concerns.
After months of debate and lobbying by all sides of the issue, the House will finally vote on a casino bill that breezed through the Senate, 16-8, and has the strong support of Gov. Maggie Hassan.
It would award a single casino license by competitive bid but create a commission to study the possibility of licensing more casinos in the future. As written, the bill would generate money for the state and local host community by taxing slot revenue at 30 percent and table game revenue at 14 percent.
Some of the House’s amendments, however, would change the tax rates and distribution of revenue.
Hassan built her budget around casino revenue, saying she would use the $80 million casino license fee to boost services for the mentally ill and disabled, as well as hospitals and vulnerable children.
For years, the House has rejected every casino bill it considered. But a couple of things have changed the debate. Massachusetts is about to open three casinos, one outside Boston. And, unlike her predecessor, Hassan supports expanded gambling.
And Hassan hasn’t hesitated to share her enthusiasm with freshman House members, especially her fellow Democrats.
Karrick talked privately with Hassan about the bill. She made a push for his support, he said, but also listened to his concerns.
“She’s a very nice person,” Karrick said of Hassan. “I have nothing against the governor. But I think this whole process should have been started as soon as she was elected. I think the Senate sent (the House) a very poorly thought out bill.”
Rep. Lorrie Carey, a Boscawen Democrat who is also undecided on the casino bill, asked for 30 minutes with the governor. Hassan gave Carey an hour.
“I appreciate the process (Hassan) went through . . . to get to supporting this,” Carey said. “She’s dead on. In this state, we have a history of picking the pockets of various revenue sources rather than committing ourselves to any particular revenue stream other than property taxes. I do think it’s time for New Hampshire to look at its entire revenue stream system and make some difficult and unpopular decisions about what is sustainable.”
But Carey still isn’t sure a casino is the solution. She reached out to constituents and elected leaders in the five communities she represents, hoping for a clear consensus on the bill.
Carey didn’t find it; instead she has found them and many of the groups she supports – unions, the hospitality industry and nonprofits – deeply divided.
Like Karrick, Carey knows only that she wants to hear a debate on the bill and the amendments. She also wonders whether the people of New Hampshire should decide this issue at the polls rather than 424 lawmakers.
“If you have not been directly involved in the process . . . you want to hear what people have proposed as remedies,” she said. “But perhaps that is because we are freshmen.”
Rep. Paul Henle, a Concord Democrat serving his first term, also had a private meeting with Hassan. He said yesterday the discussion helped him decide to support expanded gambling.
However, he didn’t offer a ringing endorsement.
“You’ve got to hold your nose and vote for gambling,” he said last night. “If we don’t pass gambling, then the budget we pass for the next two years is going to look an awful lot like the budget we passed two years ago, and that’s a sin.”
Henle said he could not support a repeat of deep cuts to education, social services and hospitals.
“I would prefer an income tax,” he said. “But I don’t believe we are going to get an income tax until we try gambling and find out if it’s going to work or not. And then we can work on a real solution. I think New Hampshire is stuck.”
Rep. Howard Moffett, a freshman Democrat from Canterbury, said he has not been contacted by Hassan. “And if she had, she wouldn’t have changed my mind,” he said.
Moffett said most of the constituents from Canterbury who have contacted him have opposed the bill. And he’s deeply concerned that casino gambling would harm New Hampshire’s image as a family friendly state known best for its mountains, lakes and rivers.
Moffett is also unconvinced the construction jobs created by a casino would go to New Hampshire workers, and he’s mindful that casino revenues are down in other states.
“I can’t see any circumstance under which I could vote for a gambling bill,” he said. “I think the downsides are much greater for me than the upsides.”
Rep. Jane Hunt, a freshman Democrat from Concord, also got an invite to talk with Hassan about the casino bill. “I spent a half-hour with her going over the pros and cons,” she said. “I told her I was trying to find my way to ‘yes’ but that I wasn’t finding it.”
Hunt said she was “probably” going to vote against the bill today because she too doubts the casino will produce the revenue predicted, or in time to help the next two-year budget. She’s also concerned that the bill tries to license a casino while simultaneously writing regulations for a casino.
“It’s hard for me,” Hunt said. “I really don’t want to say no to union jobs. But I do want to say no to this way of funding state government.” She’d prefer an income tax because she considers it a more fair and a more predictable source of revenue.
Freshman Rep. Michael Cahill, a Newmarket Democrat, also met with Hassan. “She asked me to keep an open mind,” he said.
Cahill intends to. While he’s leaning against voting for expanded gambling, he said last night that he’ll likely vote to overturn the committee recommendation to kill the bill.
“I want to hear the other arguments,” he said.
(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323,
email@example.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)