Casino plan fails to beat House odds

Last modified: 3/29/2012 12:00:00 AM
The New Hampshire House doubled down yesterday on its opposition to legalizing casinos by killing off the idea regardless of whether the number of in-state facilities was four or two.

On a 226-118 vote, the Republican-controlled House rejected an attempt to pass House Bill 593, which would have established two casinos in New Hampshire. This came shortly after the House voted 195-154 to defeat an amendment, backed by pro-casino lawmakers, that sought to widen support for the proposal by adding two more casino licenses to the bill.

Rep. Dan McGuire, an Epsom Republican, told his fellow lawmakers that casinos create a "monopoly."

"This bill, with the amendment, creates four golden tickets that are obtainable only by the very wealthy," McGuire said. "If you want to add a few slot machines to your bar or you want to put a poker room in the back of your restaurant, you're out of luck. If 20 years from now your grandchild has the aptitude and ambition to try to become the Donald Trump of New Hampshire - well sorry, all those opportunities have been sold."

The bill had been the subject of intense lobbying, particularly by Las Vegas-based Millenium Gaming, which discussed a $450 million plan to build a casino at Rockingham Park in Salem.

"We are disappointed with the House outcome, that some continue to block what a significant majority of New Hampshire citizens support: which is thousands of well paying jobs and hundreds of millions of non-taxpayer revenue brought by permitting casino gaming," Rich Killion, a Millenium lobbyist, said in a statement after the vote.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway had shown an interest in a casino, and Jerry Gappens, general manager of the Loudon track, also expressed disappointment in the vote. Casino supporters said the state revenue from the casinos would have slashed New Hampshire's business profits tax from 8.5 to 4.3 percent, and the business enterprise tax from 0.75 to 0.25 percent.

"In my opinion, this plan would have stimulated our state's economy in a number of critical ways, including major tax cuts for businesses throughout the state," Gappens said. "House Bill 593 would provide an immediate and significant boost to jobs, tourism and economic development."

Supporters of the bill pointed to Massachusetts recently legalizing three casinos as a sign of urgency facing New Hampshire. The state stands to lose up to $100 million in tax revenue every two years if it does nothing as consumers head south, they said.

But Rep. Steve Shurtleff, a Democrat from Penacook, wasn't convinced. Opponents of the bill said the casinos would create economic "black holes" by sending private profits out of state that would have otherwise gone into the New Hampshire economy.

"This House has a tradition of marching to the beat of its own drum, and now is not the time to succomb to pressure outside our state," Shurtleff said.

The state troopers union, which had endorsed the bill along with the New Hampshire Police Association, said experiences in other states have shown there is no correlation between casinos and a rise in serious crime. But Shurtleff said the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, which he said opposed the bill along with the current and prior state attorneys general, testified that serious crime would rise 10 percent within five years of completion of the first casino. From the proposed Salem casino alone, an additional 1,200 serious crimes would be committed in the town and surrounding communities each year, he said.

"I know that if we pass HB 593, the New Hampshire as we know it and we love it will never be the same," Shurtleff said.

Rep. Candace Bouchard, a Concord Democrat, came down on the other side of the argument. Charitable gaming as it currently exists in New Hampshire supports hundreds of charities, but it will likely be wiped out by the lure of larger jackpots and nice casinos in Massachusetts, she said.

"Once casinos open in Massachusetts, charity gaming as we know it in New Hampshire is over," Bouchard said. "If this bill fails, charity organizations and the people they aid are the losers."

Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican, spoke against the casino effort because he said the $50 million licensing fee for the two larger casinos - $20 million for the two smaller licenses in the amendment - wasn't enough up-front state revenue. The bill also didn't require a minimum investment by the owners to ensure they would build "destination casinos," or any timeline for the when the casinos would be operating and generating state revenue, he said.

"Regardless of whether you support or oppose gambling, I believe we have a responsibility to the voters, to our constituents, to the taxpayers not to give away licenses, a valuable state asset, without getting the maximum value for them," Kurk said. "This bill doesn't come close."

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)




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