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Casino efforts get a boost

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 25. 2015 9:22PM

CONCORD - A casino gambling bill heads to the floor of the House of Representatives this week with the blessing of the Ways and Means Committee for only the second time in state history. And while casino supporters and detractors remain far apart on the issue, they agree on one thing - no one is willing to place bets on how Wednesday's vote may play out.

"Ultimately, it will come down to the question: Do we look to this as an alternative source of revenue that does not involve mandatory income or sales taxes?" said Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Don Leeman, R-Rochester, who voted to approve SB 113. "I have sworn to oppose any and all sales or income taxes. I will keep that promise no matter how long I serve in the House, and I support the bill that came out of our committee. I will vote for it, but as far as how the House vote will go - your guess is as good as mine."

"There's many reasons why we shouldn't have a casino in New Hampshire, and only one reason why we should - and that's money," said Rep. Paul Henle, D-Concord.

The House Ways and Means Committee voted 11-10 to approve the bill, which looks to establish two casinos: a larger resort-type destination casino, and a separate, smaller establishment. The bill was amended to include examining the license selection process after the first license is granted for the larger casino. It calls for at least a one-year wait before a second license would be granted.

On Friday, Gov. Maggie Hassan announced that she would support the two-casino bill - an idea she had previously rejected - because the one-year wait for the second license could be contingent upon the success of the first casino.

Reconsidered the issue

Rep. Henle, D-Concord, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, voted against approving a similar casino gambling bill in 2014 that was defeated 11-9. This year he offered the amendment to SB 113 calling for the audit and waiting period. Its inclusion in the bill prompted him to vote for the bill this year.

"For me, the amendment is the key," said Henle. "There has been a lot of talk about a casino being a source of needed new revenue, and I wanted the best bill possible to come out of our committee to the rest of the House. The amendment allows us to slow down the process on a second one, if there is a second one.

"Honestly, without the amendment I wouldn't have supported this - and I'm still not sure how I'll vote on Wednesday," said Henle.

Steve Duprey, a Concord businessman and co-chairman for the group Casino Free New Hampshire, which opposes expanded gambling in the state, views Henle's amendment differently.

"I think it strengthens our argument," said Duprey. "It makes a bad bill even worse, because by delaying the process for a second casino, it effectively creates a monopoly for the owners of the one larger casino, benefiting one part of the state. That's not the way we do business in New Hampshire."

"I would argue that it strengthens the bill," said Henle. "It allows the state to go through the process and award the license for a casino, then go back and review it. See what worked, what we could have done better, or different."

In March 2014, the House killed a bill that would have legalized one casino. Two months later, it killed a Senate bill that would have established two casinos. That vote was 173-172.

Rep. Larry Gagne, R-Manchester, is one member of the House who has changed his vote since then from Nay to Yea.

Strong public input

"I almost never hear from my constituents on anything, but I'm hearing from a lot of them on this one," said Gagne. "And every one of them is asking me if I've changed my vote, because they are in favor of this. You won't catch me inside a casino, I'm not a gambler, but if someone wants to come in and spend the money, and the state gets the revenue, I'm all for it. I have voted against casino bills twice, but I'm voting for this one."

Gagne said he was swayed by the addition of a second casino this year.

"One casino benefits a chosen few, and looks too much like a monopoly to me," said Gagne. "Two casinos is something I could back."

"We have an opportunity to bring in a new, large business without using any state money," said Leeman. "That business will attract a good number of players from other states, primary among them being Massachusetts. If you look at about a 30-50 mile radius from Salem, we see cities and towns where there is a good deal of money, and players from such cities and towns may very well come here instead of going down to the casino that may be built in Everett."

Huge revenue

According to the New Hampshire Lottery Commission, the larger casino could create an estimated $135 million in revenue in its first full year of operation if it opens prior to July 2018 - and no casinos are open in the Greater Boston area.

Henle said he has had conversations with fellow lawmakers, but he didn't want to guess how this week's vote may go.

"It's a different vote than most," said Henle. "On the death penalty, you know the consequences of your vote. On this, you won't know whether it's a savior or not. And there's no going back once it's built."

"A casino bill has never passed the House," said Duprey. "I'm confident we'll come out on top again."

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