February 17. 2013 11:48PM

John DiStaso's Granite Status: Forbes to return to NH on March 15

MONDAY, FEB. 18, UPDATE: FORBES TO RETURN TO NH. Businessman, publisher, Fox News Channel host and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes has agreed to keynote the joint Lincoln Day Dinner of the Concord City Republican Committee and the Merrimack County Republican Committee on Friday, March 15 in Concord.

Concord GOP Chair Kerry Marsh said more details are in the works as are more items for his scheduled trip to the Granite State.

(Earlier Granite Status reports follow.)

THURSDAY, FEB. 14, UPDATE: MAGGIE'S MOVE: BRILLIANT OR "LUDICROUS?" Gov. Maggie Hassan certainly went "all in" on casino gambling Thursday. She did so to an even stronger degree than had been expected.

In her budget address, she didn't merely call for a casino along the state's southern border as she did during the 2012 campaign.

She went much further. She put her money where her rhetoric was by including $80 million in her proposed budget from anticipated licensing fees from a single casino. She then doubled down on the bet by insisting the funds were necessary "to fund our most pressing priorities, especially higher education and mental health."

Her emphasis on the importance of the gambling revenue to some of the state's most basic needs stands as a straightforward challenge to lawmakers:

The choices:

1) Approve casino gambling, or

2) Come up with $80 million in revenue elsewhere, or

3) Cut $80 million worth of programs, or

4) Some combination of 2 and 3.

The state Senate is expected to choose Door Number One by approving a casino gambling bill sponsored by Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, and cosponsored by a bipartisan group of eight other senators.

The House is a much different story. For more than a decade it has repeatedly rejected "stand alone" gambling bills.

But this time, Hassan certainly upped the ante by directly linking gambling to $80 million in her budget.

Is that move politically astute or a bit too presumptuous?

Gambling supporters wanted the money put into the budget to, in effect, put pressure on the House.

If it doesn't want gambling, what will it cut or what taxes will it raise or create?

Supporters are also ecstatic over the recent UNH poll conducted for WMUR showing 62 percent of Granite Staters favor a casino in the state.

Gambling interests have long had supporters in the Senate. Now, they have a willing partner in the governor.

But at the State House, it takes three to tango, and what about the House?

House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Penacook said he has been a gambling opponent in the past.

He would not specifically say how he feels about it this time.

Shurtleff said he will value the judgment of the House Finance Committee, which will have a huge influence on the process and will give a hint of where the House Democratic leadership stands fairly early on.

House Finance will be the first legislative stop for the budget, even as the Senate will be the first to consider, and probably pass, the separate D'Allesandro gambling bill.

House speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, in keeping with her close-to-the-vest approach on most controverisal matters, did not even mention gambling in her official reaction to the governor's budget.

Hassan spokesman Marc Goldberg posted on Twitter that "every New Hampshire budget relies on accompanying bills being passed."

But Deputy House Minority Leader David Hess, R-Hooksett, a staunch gambling opponent, said the governor's approach is "ludicrous."

Hess said, "Until now, we've never had a governor who has cited in a budget address a revenue source that did not already exist, much less one that's illegal.

"Why not propose raising $30 million by licensing bordellos or by licensing moonshine distilleries?" Hess asked, with tongue only partially implanted in cheek.


(Earlier Granite Status reports follow.)

MID-DAY THURSDAY, FEB. 14, UPDATE: MAGGIE'S ALL IN. As the Granite Status and UnionLeader.com first reported Wednesday, Gov. Maggie Hassan proposed casino gambling at a single facility during her budget address on Thursday morning.

As we reported, she included $80 million in revenue anticipated from the licensing of one "high-end, highly regulated casino."

Hassan said, "With Massachusetts already moving forward, we can no longer pretend that expanding gambling isn't coming to our communities. It is."

She said the revenue from licensing a casino would fund "our most pressing priorities, especially higher education and mental health."

For her plan to work, the Legislature must pass a separate bill authorizing gambling. More below about that bill, which is expected to pass the state Senate but faces an uncertain fate in the House.

See State House reporter Garry Rayno's full report elsewhere on UnionLeader.com. Our earlier exclusive report and the full Feb. 14 Granite Status follow.

EARLY THURSDAY, FEB. 14: MAGGIE AND GAMBLING. When Gov. Maggie Hassan takes to the House chamber podium this morning to deliver her first budget address, she is expected to express strong support for expanded gambling and include about $80 million in gambling licensing revenue in her spending plan for fiscal 2014 and 2015.

The revenue is dependent on separate passage of a gambling bill that would send the licensing money to higher education and North Country economic development. Full gambling proceeds would not be available until a casino is up and running much later.

The main gambling bill, Senate Bill 152, is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Ways and Means Committee Tuesday.

Whether Hassan makes a pointed call for gambling or whether she issues a strong expression of support is unclear, but no matter.

Either way, her overall message will be clear.

And it won't be a huge surprise since she has repeatedly said she could support a single casino in the southern part of the state ever since she campaigned for governor.

But in making it official, the freshman chief executive will formally part ways with her predecessor, fellow Democrat John Lynch, who had opposed expanded gambling throughout his four terms.

A poll this week by UNH for WMUR indicated that 66 percent of Granite Staters support legalizing gambling if it means income and sales taxes are off the table, while 29 percent would still oppose it.

And without the proviso on broad-based taxes, 62 percent favored expanded gambling, while 32 percent opposed it.

The poll showed support has grown from 49 percent in November 2009.

Anxiously waiting in the wings are entities that would bid for the single license available under Senate Bill 152, including of course, the folks at Salem's Rockingham Park and partner Millennium Gaming. The bill also sets up a commission to consider future additional gambling sites.

Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, the sponsor of SB 152, said Wednesday he did not know for certain if gambling revenue will be included in the governor's budget plan, but he said, "You can't build a budget for 2014 and 2015 without it."

D'Allesandro's bill targets licensing fee revenue for a casino for higher education and North Country economic development.

If a casino can actually get up and running before the end of the next budget cycle, on June 30, 2015, additional revenue it generates would, under the bill, be directed to infrastructure - specifically, roads and bridges.

Will it actually happen this year? The poll says yes, the governor says yes and the state Senate is expected to say yes.

What will the House say?

That's the $80 million (and possibly much more) question.

State Republican Party Chairman Jennifer Horn said that without a gambling bill passed, "to build a budget around these revenues would be extremely irresponsible." But she said Republicans are "ready to work with" the governor.

NOT SO FAST, SENATOR. D'Allesandro, the Manchester Democrat who is vice chairman of the influential Senate Ways and Means Committee, is skeptical of Republican Senate President Peter Bragdon's plan to eliminate ramp tolls on three entrances and exits on the F.E. Everett Turnpike in Merrimack.

D'Allesandro said he is "keeping an open mind" and has not yet decided whether to support Bragdon's Senate Bill 3.

He needs "more numbers" from the Department of Transportation on what the loss of revenue would mean to the overall turnpike system.

D'Allesandro said Bragdon "makes a lot of sense in that there are three tolls" in Merrimack, but, "Remember, it's a toll road, and in order for it to work and make improvements on the toll road, you got to have receipts."

While Bragdon pointed out D'Allesandro's home city commuters can exit and enter the turnpike free of charge at their interchanges, D'Allesandro says Manchester was "extremely limited" in the number of exits from and entrances to the turnpike for many years.

"The largest city in the state finally got some relief in recent years," D'Allesandro said. "For many years at the Granite Street Bridge, you could only get off and you had to go to the Amoskeag Bridge to get on."

"You have to look at economic feasibility and if it's feasible to eliminate one of those tolls, let's do it," he said.

"I'm very open to the discussion."

SOONER RATHER THAN LATER. Former House Speaker Bill O'Brien says he's actually enjoying being a "back bencher" in the House, where he can speak his mind even more openly than he did as speaker.

He's also doing nothing to squelch speculation that he's looking ahead to a U.S. House run against embattled Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster.

A possible O'Brien congressional run was the subject of a story last week in the National Journal's Hotline On Call.

Also considering running, as we reported a week ago, is fellow Republican former state Sen. Gary Lambert of Nashua.

O'Brien this week blasted teacher unions on his Facebook page, saying they are "the one fundamental reason" that "government schools are failing in New Hampshire and throughout the country."

He told us "a lot of folks have come up to me and seem to be fairly supportive" of a congressional run. "But we'll see.

"At this point I'm really trying to concentrate on my state representative responsibilities," he said.

He said his beloved right-to-work legislation, which failed again Wednesday in the House, will pass "some day."

He said he realizes Kuster is a formidable fund-raiser and that if he is to mount a serious challenge, he must get going "sooner rather than later.

"I do know there does need to be more fiscally responsible votes in Washington," he said.

HER FIRST PLEA SINCE... Kuster emailed supporters asking for fund-raising help Wednesday, her first plea since she apologized for making six consecutive late property tax payments over the past three years on her home in Hopkinton and missing two payments on a home in Jackson.

She uses O'Brien as an impetus to raise money, writing that "not even a full month in, there is already talk of an extremist opponent, Bill O'Brien, jumping in to run against me."

She asks for funds or for supporters to join "Annie Angels," who, she wrote, give to her reelection campaign on a monthly basis.

The state GOP late Wednesday sent out its own fund-raising email focusing on Kuster's tax controversy.

"We need your help to make sure that Annie Kuster's hypocritical 'taxes for thee but not for me' policies are defeated," the party wrote.

FERGUS AT THE MONDAY MEETING. Former state GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen Wednesday confirmed he attended this week's New York City gathering of The Monday Meeting, a group of high-dollar conservative donors who meet monthly on an off-the-record basis.

Cullen recently announced the formation of the Americans By Choice, a bipartisan nonprofit advocacy group promoting immigration reform from what Cullen has called "a center-right" perspective.

After the Granite Status obtained an email to Monday Meeting participants saying Cullen was making his "Monday Meeting debut," he confirmed that he was among several speakers.

"Bigger names," he said, included Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., conservative columnist John Fund and author Amity Shlaes.

Cullen said he was in the big city for "a series of fund-raising and other meetings as we build support for Americans By Choice."

He said, "I had to be sharp to win people over."

Cullen, an accomplished distance runner, said he "also got to go for a run in Central Park, which I'd never done before, so that was a bonus. At least as good as a Broadway show in my book!"

THE THURSDAY MEETING. It's been a week since the RightOn Strategies conservative consulting group hosted a private meeting of more than 130 state Republicans at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

The results of a New England College poll on the 2014 U.S. Senate race showed Sen. Jeanne Shaheen only slightly ahead of a generic Republican candidate, 49 to 43 percent, which Republicans say shows potential vulnerability, albeit very early.

Beyond that, we've learned the poll showed Hassan ahead of a generic Republican challenger by 8 percentage points, 49 to 41 percent.

And, regarding the state Legislature, those questioned preferred Republican control over Democratic control, 49 to 42 percent.

While critics will undoubtedly say the poll was completed for a Republican group, it's also true the NEC is not exactly a right-wing polling outfit.

They're the same pollsters who recently showed 72 percent of Granite Staters supported a ban on "assault weapons," a term that was not defined in the poll.

The new poll gauged support for "semi-automatic firearms" in "protecting your family," and 44 percent were in support while 47 percent were opposed.

The poll also found 60 percent viewed themselves as "pro-choice" and 32 percent, "pro-life."

But when asked their thoughts on whether an abortion should be performed at the point where an "unborn child" could "feel pain," 41 percent opposed abortion and 37 percent supported it.

HOLLY'S NEW POST. Holly Shulman, the former spokesman for the Obama campaign in New Hampshire and previously for the state Democratic Party, has landed a federal job.

After working for the Obama inaugural committee, Shulman is now an international affairs spokesman at the U.S. Treasury Department.

COME ON UP! State Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley issued a sarcastic invitation to Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to include a stop in New Hampshire on his book tour. According to Buckley, Cuccinelli is releasing a new book "The Last Line of Defense" that has been described as a "tea party manifesto" and "is a clear first step in his run for the Republican nomination in 2016."

"We sincerely hope that Attorney General Cuccinelli honors New Hampshire with a reading of his new book ahead of the first-in-the-nation primary here in the Granite State," Buckley wrote.

"Ken Cuccinelli's opinion that Social Security and Medicare are 'goodies' that make recipients 'dependent on government' would certainly be enlightening to the many voters he will have to win over during his long quest for the presidency. We think this is such an important thing for New Hampshire voters that we will pay for the attorney aeneral's travel up here for the reading."

(John DiStaso is senior political reporter of the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He can be reached at jdistaso@unionleader.com. Twitter: @jdistaso.)