March 02. 2013 10:57PM

Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Expect gambling bill to pass Senate panel

State House Bureau

The Senate Ways and Means Committee will meet Tuesday morning to decide on its recommendation for Senate Bill 152, which would establish a casino along the state's southern border.

The bill is backed by Gov. Maggie Hassan, who counts on $80 million in casino licensing fees to help balance her budget.

Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Odell predicts a 4-1 vote in favor, with him the lone dissenter. Prime sponsors Lou D'Allesandro and Chuck Morse are committee members.

The bill will have little trouble passing the Senate. The fight has always been in the House, and last week the odds changed a little.

The House has never passed a bill expanding gambling by adding video slots or table games, and even the most promising estimates indicate SB 152 may be at least 20 to 30 votes short of passage.

However, the dynamics have changed this year because of Massachusetts' approval of three casinos and a slot barn, which will make it much easier for New Hampshire residents to spend some of their discretionary income.

Lawmakers have to be concerned about taxes, particularly the Democrats, who control the House and who were tossed out in 2010 largely because of such things as the LLC and campground taxes.

And this is the first time a governor has backed a specific plan and advocated for it, by even including the revenue in her budget.

Meanwhile, public opinion has changed. A recent University of New Hampshire poll suggests about 60 percent of the state's residents support gambling as a way to pay for state services over options such as increasing property taxes or instituting a sales or income taxes.

Until last week, the biggest hurdle for supporters had been overcoming the perception that SB 152 was wired for Millennium Gaming, which has an option on Rockingham Park, the once-proud horse racing facility that is now more a simulcast-and-charity-gaming mecca.

The non-artisan New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies released a long-awaited report on what a casino would mean to the state financially. The center found a casino similar to that proposed in SB 152 would offer no net financial gain for the state and could even be a financial burden when social and regulatory costs are considered.

Casino supporters and opponents will argue long and hard about the report's assumptions and what the true social costs would be, but the reality is the report made it more difficult for SB 152 to pass the House.

Hassan tried to box in the House by including the gaming revenue in her proposed budget - pass gambling or cut the money added for higher education, hospitals and the mental health system - but once again the House has a mind of its own.

The House Ways and Means Committee did not include any gaming money in its revenue estimates for the next two years, and the House Finance Committee is looking for "savings" to make up for the $80 million in proposed gaming revenue.

House Speaker Terie Norelli has long been an opponent of expanded gambling, but did not dismiss it out of hand after Hassan's budget address.

She can talk about gambling being a vote of conscience for House members, but does anyone think Norelli wants to be the speaker who finally got gambling through the House?

Casino supporters certainly have much work to do before June.

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GAS TAX BLUES: The other big revenue raiser before the Legislature this session, increasing the gas tax, had a hard time.

The House was set to take a preliminary vote Wednesday on the proposed 15 cent increase over the next four years, but the session was canceled because of the storm.

Waiting a week may be a good thing for supporters after House Public Works and Highways Committee Chairman David Campbell of Nashua, the prime sponsor, sent an email to his fellow House chairs and vice chairs saying the increase would be the "gift that keeps on giving" and noted uncollected gas tax refunds would provide $658,000 for the state's general fund, $1.25 million for Fish & Game and $593,000 for trail upkeep.

"As my father used to say, 'don't spend it all in one place!'" Campbell wrote.

Former Speaker William O'Brien jumped in with both feet, and the bleeding began.

Campbell appeared before his committee Tuesday and said he was sorry he gave some people a thread to pull to try to unravel the proposal.

While the gas tax increase appeared to be a pretty safe bet in the House, its fate was far less certain in the Senate, and the brouhaha certainly did not help its chances, as some Democrats are getting cold feet.

The bill is likely to pass Wednesday and go to Ways and Means for review, where it may well be reduced.

A little time away from the spotlight in Ways and Means will let things cool down a little before the real vote on the bill is taken later this month.

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FOOT IN MOUTH: Campbell was not the only House member apologizing for something said last week.

Goffstown Rep. Mark Warden garnered lots of attention when he said, "Some people could make the argument that a lot of people like being in abusive relationships. It's a love-hate relationship. It's very, very common for people to stick around with somebody they love who also abuses him or her."

He made the remark while the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee discussed a bill to reduce the penalty for assault in domestic violence and some other cases.

The video went viral on the social networks, and Warden sort of apologized.

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NEW POST: Greg Moore, former O'Brien chief of staff and longtime political operative, has a new job. He is now the New Hampshire state director of Americans for Prosperity.

Moore served on the organization's New Hampshire board since 2009.

Current AFP state Director Corey Lewandowski will be the organization's regional director.

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NEW SURROUNDINGS: Former University System of New Hampshire Chancellor James MacKay left his post Friday and the next day joined the Davis Educational Foundation Board of Trustees. The foundation supports the undergraduate programs of public and private colleges and universities throughout New England.

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ROAD SHOW: Hearings on the governor's proposed budget begin this week. Members of the House Finance Committee will visit communities across the state and take testimony and questions on the plan.

"These meetings allow us to directly engage the communities throughout the state and receive valuable feedback as we proceed through the budget process," said Norelli.

A hearing will begin Thursday at 4 p.m. in Representatives Hall. Others will be held

March 11 at White Mountain Regional High School in Whitefield and at the NH Community Technical College in Nashua, both from 5 to 8 p.m.

Hearings are also scheduled March 18 in Claremont at the Sugar River Regional Technical Center in Claremont and at the Rochester Community Center, both from 5 to 8 p.m.