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Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Expanded gambling gets another airing

February 06. 2016 7:10PM

YES, GROUNDHOG DAY was last week and the furry critter is promising a short winter, but Punxsutawney Phil is not needed to predict the outcome of Senate Bill 551, which would establish a casino at Rockingham Park in Salem.

Despite the fact that casino gambling is popular with some state residents, the House has never approved expanded gambling that includes video slot machines and table games.

The past three years the push was on to pass casino gambling in light of Massachusetts approving three casinos and a video slots parlor, but this year that isn't the case. Gov. Maggie Hassan, who supported a high-end, highly regulated casino the last three years, did not even mention the concept during her State of the State speech last week to lawmakers.

However, none of that deters the Legislature's biggest cheerleader for expanded gambling, Sen. Lou D'Allesandro of Manchester, who is sponsoring Senate Bill 551.

Under the bill, up to 3,500 video lottery machines and up to 100 table games would be allowed at the one site — Rockingham Park in Salem.

D'Allesandro has several Democratic senators co-sponsoring the bill and Senate President Chuck Morse.

The Manchester Democrat said he is always cautious about the outcome but notes, “We have a significant population that supports this.

“Everywhere I go, people say ‘When will you get it passed? When will you get it passed?' The public wants it,” he said.

Over the years, D'Allesandro has tailored his casino bills to the whims of lawmakers, sometimes one site, sometimes two, up to 5,000 video lottery machines.

Most recently he proposed using a large share of the state's take to restore the revenue sharing program with municipalities that was suspended in the last great downturn in 2009.

Under his plan, the state Lottery Commission would regulate the casino, which would turn over 35 percent of its gross video game revenue and 18 percent of the table game revenue to the state.

Of the state's share, Salem would receive 3 percent; abutting communities, Rockingham County and problem gambler treatment programs would each receive 1 percent, and the remaining money would go for revenue sharing to its legal limit.

The rest of the money would go into the gaming regulatory fund.

As under other of D'Allesandro's bills, the original license to operate the casino would cost $80 million and every renewal $1.5 million.

The bill also sets up a gaming oversight unit in the New Hampshire State Police and a regulatory unit with the Lottery Commission.

There is great interest in having a casino draw people to the state, D'Allesandro said, but the House has consistently rejected all casino proposals.

Instead the House has approved Keno, as it did for the third straight year last month, and removed the limit on poker bets.

“The problem I see is the state doesn't get any revenue from those, and we need a sustainable revenue base and new revenue base as we go forward,” D'Allesandro said. “We always talk about a nontax and this is a nontax, but that is rational thinking.”

The public hearing on the bill is scheduled for 9:45 a.m. Tuesday before the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

That is presidential primary day, so you have to wonder is someone trying to sneak this through without notice, or is someone trying to bury it under the avalanche of the presidential primary so it is ignored.

But you know D'Allesandro is not going to let it be ignored for very long, although he has to know his bill has little-to-no chance of passing the House in this election year.

Medicaid expansion

This week the rubber is about to meet the road when the House takes up House Bill 1696 which extends the New Hampshire Health Protection Program, or Medicaid expansion, for two more years.

So far reauthorizing expansion has had a charmed life with public support across a broad spectrum of organizations and individuals at a public hearing last month and with the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee, which voted 17-1 to recommend the bill pass.

Lots of people including the governor and Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, have touted expansion as the single biggest action lawmakers could take to begin turning the tide against the state's opioid addiction epidemic.

Hassan focused on the drug crisis and expansion during her State of the State speech last week, and Bradley and others have touted the program wherever they go.

But this is not a layup in the House where more than 170 Republicans signed the Americans-For-Prosperity NH pledge to kill reauthorization.

But the tide appears to have turned with the committee vote, which should be an indication of enough support to move the bill to the Senate where passage is all but assured.

Most people did not see such smooth sailing for reauthorization, although things could change between now and Wednesday's House vote.

Early predictors

If you want an early read on who will win the New Hampshire First-in-the-Nation Presidential Primary, you need to look at the results from 13 towns.

Since the 1952 primary when voters actually began voting for the candidate and not delegates, seven communities have always voted for the Republican winner.

Those communities are East Kingston, Lancaster, Newmarket, Pembroke, Rochester, Sanbornton and Washington.

On the Democratic side six towns have picked the winner since 1952: Epping, Hudson, Kingston, Laconia, Merrimack and Rollinsford.

Will the sure bet continue in 2016? We'll have to wait until Tuesday night to find out.

Saturday opening

For years the Concord Chamber of Commerce and others have pushed for the State House to be open on Saturdays between Memorial Day and Columbus Day.

House Bill 1531 allows for the state to enter into a memorandum of understanding with an outside organization allow the State House to be open Saturdays between Memorial Day and Columbus Day.

The bill would have the Joint Legislative Facilities Committee review and approve the memorandum.

Some Concord lawmakers tried at the end of last session to pass similar legislation but that fell apart in the final days of the session as concerns were raised about security and the state's massive portrait collection hanging in the hallways.

Unless there are some unforeseen snags this time, the bill is likely to make it through the House Wednesday and go on to the Senate.

The Senate may want a few changes, but it stands a much better chance of becoming law than it did last session.

Road usage fee

Many lawmakers praised Rep. Norman Major's road usage fee proposal, which charges high-mileage and alternative-fuel vehicles money to help pay for the state highway system.

While the fee leveled the playing field for road usage, there was tremendous blow-back from owners who said it amounted to a tax on energy efficiency.

Major's plan was the first real tangible way of recouping what the state highway fund has lost over the years in gas tax revenue from more efficient vehicles. Most of the money to fix the state's road and bridges comes from the fund. As the balance slipped in recent years, so did paving and rehab work and it shows.

Lawmakers have studied the issue for years and failed to make any kind of suggestion similar to what Major proposed.

But bowing to pressure, the House Public Works and Highways Committee voted unanimously to send the bill to interim study, which died a polite death in the second year of a two-year term because the next Legislature does not have to do anything with the proposal.

Some people objected to the fee, saying it had more to do with raising additional money for highways a year after increasing the gas tax, but that doesn't address the loss of revenue due to efficiency.

The House is expected to kill the bill Wednesday. The question now is: How do you find the money to fix the potholes and red-listed bridges without raising the gas tax again or reinstituting the dreaded registration surcharge?

That'll be up to the next Legislature to decide.

Political boundaries? Few things are as important to partisan politics as drawing the political boundaries of U.S. House, Executive Council, State Senate or State House seats.

Just ask Democrats, who in 2012 won control of the House but failed to win control of the Senate although Democrats received more votes than Republicans.

A number of Democratic House members proposed creating an independent redistricting committee to oversee the next redrawing of the state's political boundaries.

Not surprisingly with the GOP in control of the House, House Bill 1564 is expected to be killed this week.

But the next time the lines will be drawn will be in 2021, after the 2020 election.

The 2020 election is a presidential year, and for the last three presidential elections Democrats have won the House.

If that holds true for that election, Republicans may wish they hadn't killed the independent redistricting commission.

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