N.H. Casino debate may not be over

Last modified: 6/3/2013 9:30:17 AM
While the casino bill died in the New Hampshire House this month by 35 votes, the debate may not be over just yet.

Some House members are considering reviving a gambling study commission asked in 2010 to write rules and regulations for a casino should the state ever legalize one. The 2010 commission met eight times and was on the verge of hiring a gambling expert when the Republican-led Executive Council rejected the $40,000 contract because there wasn’t a casino bill pending at the time.

Without experts to guide it, the commission ceased its work.

But its authority doesn’t expire until the end of June, and those on both sides of the casino debate said last week they support extending that deadline so the commission can complete its work before the Legislature is asked to consider a casino again. The list includes Gov. Maggie Hassan, who supports casino gambling, and the state attorney general’s office, which doesn’t.

“We are confident that the regulatory infrastructure outlined in (the defeated bill) would ensure appropriate and thorough oversight of a casino,” said Marc Goldberg, Hassan’s spokesman. “But (we) understand that some members would prefer to go a step further than is typical and write actual regulatory rules before passing any expanded gambling measure. If the Legislature would like to extend the deadline and use the study funds to that end, we are willing to have a discussion on what that might look like.”

The Senate’s casino bill proposed creating casino regulations and legalizing casino gambling simultaneously.

Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice, who served on the 2010 Gaming Regulatory Oversight Committee, said she’d welcome the chance to finish the group’s work even though her office opposes expanded gambling. Rice, like others interviewed, believes casinos will be on the legislative agenda again.

“We need to have a full study and look at the regulatory structure,” Rice said. “And as I testified in front of (lawmakers), people who are applying for a license probably need to know what they are applying for.”

No proposal to extend the commission’s deadline had been filed by Friday, but Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat who voted against the casino bill, said it has been discussed. Other lawmakers echoed that. Extending the commission is something Shurtleff would support, he said.

“I thought that was a missed opportunity,” Shurtleff said of the Executive Council’s 3-2 party-line vote to reject the contract. “The money is still there, and if they brought (the commission) back, I think that would make some sense. I would support it because I know some people who voted against the casino were concerned about the lack of regulation.”

More backers

House Speaker Terie Norelli, a Portsmouth Democrat, said after this month’s casino vote that she’d also support reviving the commission. Rep. David Huot, a Laconia Democrat, who led a House subcommittee on casino regulation before the House defeated the bill, said he may, too.

Huot cited the testimony his committee received from people who had studied gaming regulation. Another commission put together by former governor John Lynch also concluded in 2010 that the state needed to put casino regulation in place before moving ahead with a casino.

“The other thing that needs to be explored,” Huot said, “is whether we ought to take a good hard look at regulations for all kinds of gambling. We have a pretty large charitable gaming operation in New Hampshire already.”

New Attorney General Joseph Foster served on that commission and said its report reflects his views.

Joseph Kelly, a gambling regulations expert at State College at Buffalo in New York, advises governments inside and outside the United States. He said states should get casino regulations in place first – before they do anything else with a casino. And a casino, he said, should be regulated by a full-time paid body, not part-time lottery commissioners as has been proposed in New Hampshire.

“Regulations should be set up before,” he said. “What is the tax rate going to be? What type of operator do we want to attract? The gaming regulatory body have to be full-time commissioners who are, bottom line, ruthless. The lottery wants to promote gaming. The gambling commission should not be in the business of promotion. Their job is not to make the casino happy. Their job is to make sure the casino operation is solvent and engaged in socially suitable policies.”

The gambling regulations study created by the Legislature was supposed to pursue those kind of questions:

It was asked to review existing gambling regulations, which are currently overseen by both the state Lottery Commission and the state Racing and Charitable Gaming Commission. The commission was also asked to design the oversight agency that would regulate casinos; evaluate whether the state’s existing regulatory agencies were sufficient; and to draft laws for investigating casino license applicants, selecting casino locations and issuing casino licenses.

The Legislature at the time authorized the commission, which included representatives of the state police, attorney general’s office and the Lottery Commission, to use up to $250,000 of lottery money for its work. The commission sought the use of $50,000 – $40,000 for the gambling expert and $10,000 for a lawyer – from the Executive Council in 2011.

Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, a Newfields Republican, recommended rejecting the contract. The council’s other two Republicans agreed.

Reached last week, Sununu said he’d likely vote against a similar contract again – for the same reason: There is no pending bill legalizing a casino.

“With the previous contract, it made no sense to go forward with it,” he said. “We were going to study something that wasn’t on the table anymore. And with a bill to bring gambling back (in the future), you never know what form it’s going to take. It’s hard to be studying something when you don’t know what you should be studying.”

Sununu also said this month’s vote against the casino is a sure sign a casino can’t pass the New Hampshire Legislature. This bill, Sununu said, had the support of Hassan and the Senate and still fell short by 35 votes. “It doesn’t have any real legs now or in the future,” he said. “People at some point have to come to terms with that reality.”

Asked whether he supported expanded gambling, Sununu declined to comment. “It’s already been defeated,” he said. “I don’t want to comment. We are kind of past that argument. That is nothing the state has to worry about right now.”

Another try?

House members who sat through this year’s casino debate aren’t as convinced. Huot said there is “absolutely no question” lawmakers will see another casino bill.

Millennium Gaming, the only casino developer to make its interest in a casino license public this session, remains interested in opening a casino in Salem, according to spokesman Rich Killion. But he wouldn’t comment on the prospect of extending the regulatory study commission.

“We don’t have an opinion on that process,” Killion said in an email. “Should New Hampshire legalize casino gaming, we’ll be first in line to put forth a bid for Rockingham Park, as a facility, and Salem, as a community, are the best location for a casino in New England.”

If the Executive Council is presented with a new contract for further gambling study, at least two councilors are likely to approve it: Councilors Colin Van Ostern, a Concord Democrat, and Councilor Chris Pappas, a Manchester Democrat.

“Gov. Lynch’s bipartisan gaming study committee made a clear recommendation that our state needs to study the proper regulations for gambling in our state – whether we expand it or not – and it’s unfortunate that last year’s Executive Council stopped that from happening,” Van Ostern said in an email.

Pappas agreed. “I think the last Executive Council was shortsighted in shutting that contract down,” he said. “(It) would have given New Hampshire some good recommendations on how to develop a strong regulatory system. I think we’ve heard during the House debate that a strong regulation structure is something folks in the Legislature would like to pursue. And if that leads us to the goal of generating revenue and unleashing some economic development with this casino report, than I would support a contract to advise New Hampshire on setting up that regulation.”

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

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