N.H. House defeats Hassan-backed bill for one casino

Last modified: Saturday, March 15, 2014
The House defeated a bill yesterday to legalize one casino, dashing the hopes of supporters and Gov. Maggie Hassan, who say casino revenue is crucial to New Hampshire’s economic future.

Despite the development of a strict regulatory framework and a grassroots effort by supporters to persuade their colleagues, opponents won the day with their arguments that a casino would bring social ills to New Hampshire that couldn’t be undone. The vote was 173-144.

“There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. If we approve gambling today, we’re never going to get rid of it,” said Rep. Gary Richardson, a Hopkinton Democrat.

The House has never voted in favor of expanded gambling in the form a casino, and it also defeated two bills yesterday that would have allowed for six slot-machine-only casinos statewide. The one-casino bill was crafted by the Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority, which Hassan tasked with developing a strong regulatory framework after last year’s casino bill was defeated.

Last year, Hassan had pinned her hopes on a casino by balancing her proposed budget with $80 million in casino revenue. When the casino failed, the budget had to be reworked. For this year’s bill, experts estimated a casino would have brought in $105 million in state revenue annually. In a statement after the vote, Hassan said she still believes developing a highly regulated, high-end casino is critical for New Hampshire.

“Soon, we will all see the impact of Massachusetts casinos right across our border in the form of lost revenue and potential social costs,” she said. “One way or another, we will need to recognize what is happening around us and take action to protect the interests of New Hampshire’s people and economy.”

Opponents of last year’s casino bill said the rules were too loose and a legalized casino would need more regulation. Rep. Richard Ames, a Jaffrey Democrat and chairman of the oversight authority, told his colleagues that the bill added the regulations they were seeking.

If passed, the bill would have created a five-member gambling commission in charge of all gambling in the state, including the lottery. It also included protections for local entertainment venues and charitable gambling, and set aside money for problem gambling. Residents of the host community would have needed to approve having a casino in their town.

“We listened, and now we come before you with a bill that will work for New Hampshire,” said Rep. Katherine Rogers, a Concord Democrat who supported a casino. “I’m telling you today that this is the right bill, and now is the time.”

But opponents argued the regulations weren’t strong enough and that a casino would bring gambling addiction, political corruption and an unhealthy reliance on casino revenue. Furthermore, they said, New Hampshire should seek more than the 35 percent of casino revenues it would get in the bill. Other opponents said allowing only one casino would create an unfair monopoly.

The bill didn’t spell out how the state would have used most of the money. It would have required only that small percentages of the revenue go to the host and surrounding communities and that 1 percent of all revenue go to support problem gambling. It would be unrealistic for members to think they would see the money go where they wanted it to, said Rep. David Hess, a Hooksett Republican.

“The casino fairy is back, she’s back with apparently limitless supply of casino fairy dust . . . to solve whatever problems you want to have solved,” he said.

Hess also questioned the strength of the regulatory structure. The bill didn’t include enough checks and balances for the gambling commission or give the attorney general’s office enough power to regulate gambling, Hess said.

The bill did not say where the casino would be located, but Rockingham Park in Salem has been considered a prime spot. Hess and other opponents said they didn’t believe the bill would create a casino that would draw in large numbers of gamblers from other states. Experts who testified on the bill said most gamblers come from within a 30-minute drive of a casino, Hess said.

Rep. Patricia Lovejoy, a Portsmouth Democrat, said a casino would make problem gamblers out of New Hampshire residents. Slot machines – the bill allowed for up to 5,000 – are the most addictive form of gambling, Lovejoy said. People who testified on the bill said 90 percent of casino revenue comes from slots, and 40 to 60 percent of revenue comes from problem gamblers.

“The sad fact is that casinos depend on problem gamblers,” she said.

Steve Duprey, co-chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, applauded the House for its vote.

“We hope this vote drives a stake in the heart of the gambling industry, and sends the message that New Hampshire legislators won’t fall for more empty promises,” he said in a statement.

The Senate, which supported casino gambling last year, has a bill this session that would legalize two casinos. Senators voted to put the bill on hold until the House took up its casino bills, and it was unclear yesterday how the Senate will proceed with the bill now.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)