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John DiStaso's Granite Status: 'Casino Free NH': Pro-Hassan, but anti-gambling

By John DiStaso, Senior Political Reporter
April 10. 2013 1:21PM

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 10: NEW GROUP, FAMILIAR NAMES. As the House of Representatives prepares to closely review controversial casino gambling legislation, the debate geared up Wednesday with the emergence of an anti-gambling coalition with a new name but familiar faces.

"Casino Free New Hampshire," a 501-c4 issues advocacy group, comprising long-time expanded gambling opponents, alleged at a news conference the legalization of a single casino will lead to more casinos, more addiction, other social costs and will not produce as much revenue as proponents promise.

Lew Feldstein, former president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, said, "We are appalled at what casino gambling will do to the families and communities of New Hampshire."

Feldstein said many in the group, made up mostly of Democrats, are strong supporters of Gov. Maggie Hassan and her programs.

"But this is group that does not believe that gambling is the solution or even part of the solution. It is a bad idea," he said.

"This was a bad idea when it was first proposed 40-something years ago, and it is still a bad idea," Feldstein said.

He noted it was opposed by all of New Hampshire's attorneys general in recent decades and by former Gov. John Lynch.

State Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, former chair of the House Finance Committee, denied that Democrats who oppose gambling are motivated by a desire for a broad based tax. She insisted the two issues are separate and said the broad based tax issue is settled until Granite Staters change their opinion on it, as reflected through elections.

But chief gambling bill proponent Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, said the choice is clear.

"Look, do they want an income tax or do they want a non-taxable source of revenue that is supported by the majority of the people in the State of New Hampshire?

"Do they want a revenue source that produces job? Private investment in New Hampshire is always what we've wanted," said D'Allesandro. "Significant private investment that produces economic recovery and jobs."

D'Allesandro also noted, "Every poll clearly indicates that the people of New Hampshire support this alternative.

"This rhetoric today is the same rhetoric we heard voiced 50 years ago against the lottery bill," D'Allesandro said.

Legislation legalizing the lottery was approved in 1963. The program was the first in the United States.

Also Wednesday, state Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said the Senate GOP leadership believes the gambling bill deserves an up-or-down vote in the House and the Senate has no plans at this time to try to tuck gambling into the budget bill at the end of the legislative session should the stand-alone bill fail in the House.

"If it passes the House we will assume the (gambling) revenue" in formulating a state budget, Bradley said. "If it doesn't pass the House then it's a different situation."

Hassan placed $80 million in anticipated revenue from casino licensing application fees in her proposed budget, but the Democratic-controlled House removed it because the House had not yet voted on the gambling bill when its budget was sent to the Senate.

"I don't think trying to break people's arms over gaming by forcing it into a committee of conference on the budget is the right thing to do," said Bradley.

"It's only April 10, so things can change, but so far, so good in terms of it not becoming a political football," Bradley said. "It should rise or fall on its own merits."

All 45 members of the House Finance Committee and Ways and Means Committee will review the gambling bill, House speaker Terie Norelli announced on Monday. The joint committee has scheduled a public hearing on the bill at Representatives Hall next Tuesday, April 16.

Prior to the hearing, the committee will announce subcommittees to review several aspects of the bill. On Wednesday, April 17, the joint committee will meet in the Legislative Office Building at 9:30 a.m. to hear expert testimony "and discuss the process and focus for each of the subcommittees," according to Norelli's office.

At the press conference, Rep. Smith said that despite Hassan's campaign claim that funding higher education and key programs relied on legalizing gambling, she said the House was able to pass a budget "that funds just about everything that our respected governor had in her budget, and in some areas more, and did it without any imaginary gambling money.

"We can in fact continue to have this state address the needs of the people and we can continue to function in the same way that we have, with honor and without casinos," Smith said.

Smith said the House passed "a responsible budget" and March revenue figures were strong.

"I believe we have every reason to believe we will have a responsible budget" emerge from the Senate if the House rejects gambling, said Smith.

"There is money under the current system to do what has to be done," she said. "We have been able to function well doing what we have been doing. Is it perfect? No, but not one of us here is going to sacrifice the good for the perfect.

"Meanwhile, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that, we're able to fund higher education, we're able to fund mental health, we're able to fund basic essential services," Smith said.

As for the proponents' claims that a casino will bring jobs to the state, Smith said they will be minimum wage jobs and "I'd rather have people building roads and bridges" through a gasoline tax hike "than building whatever a 'high-end' casino is."

She also said jobs in the hospitality industry and entertainment industry would be lost.

Philip McLaughlin, who was the state's attorney general from 1997 to 2002, said attorneys general "going back 50 years" have all opposed gambling, including the late Sen. Warren Rudman and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter.

McLaughlin said that when he became attorney general 16 years ago, Souter wrote him a letter "asking me to stand against expanded gambling, which he believed, as do I, would change the culture of this state forever."

Souter and Rudman "knew that casinos when introduced into small states such as ours would result in changes to the social fabric of communities.

"Small state, big rock, big ripple," McLaughlin said. "Don't underestimate it."

McLaughlin said Rudman believed "that there were things more important than money, and being faithful to New Hampshire tradition is one of them."

Feldstein criticized gambling supporters' "siren song" that gambling is needed to meet unmet state needs.

"These numbers just don't hold up either in the short term or the long term," Feldstein said. "And once we launch gambling, we will never end it, and it will spread."

In response Hassan spokesman Marc Goldberg issued a statement:

"Licensing one high-end, highly regulated casino will help fund the priorities that are critical for creating jobs and building a more innovative economic future, and it is a plan that is supported by a majority of Granite Staters, both Democrats and Republicans. We appreciate the support demonstrated for the priorities in the governor's budget, but as we have seen in the House budget, without the license fee a casino there will be significant cuts to school building aid, health care services, and our university system, putting the proposed tuition freeze at risk.

"It is unclear how casino opponents suggest funding those priorities and others without moving forward with a plan for one high-end casino," Goldberg said.

A top state organized labor leader and gambling supporter, New Hampshire Building and Construction Trades Council president Joe Casey, said the anti-casino group showed it has "no plan on how create jobs for New Hampshire citizens and no plan how to fund higher education and critical state services."

Casey called the news conference "a bunch of nothing.

"Their privileged indifference to the real needs of the people in our state is appalling," Casey said. "This group represents the same tired old arguments from the same people who have been opposing expanded gambling for years."

But Bishop Robert Hirshfeld of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire said gambling has "ruined" lives and families.

He said slot machines are "deliberately engineered" to increase the addictive power of gambling.

"To me it makes little sense that a state whose slogan is 'Live Free or Die' would pin its financial hopes on an activity that imperils its citizens and erodes community and exacts an incalculable social and spiritual toll," said Hirshfeld.

Alex Ray, owner of the Common Man Family of Restaurants, said the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, which represents 67,000 members and $2.5 billion in sales, oppose gambling because of its potential negative effect on the industry and on New Hampshire traditions.

Jim Putnam, a leader in the effort to bring same sex marriage to the state, said , "You don't address unmet needs by creating new unmet needs or by fundamentally changing the character of New Hampshire."

Jim Rubens, chair of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, said there is "no daylight" between his group and the new one on the issue.

Rubens said his group includes "liberty Republicans who oppose growing government and state sanctioned monopolies, and have no problem with gambling, to conservatives who oppose casinos on family and moral grounds, to progressives who see the need for more state revenues.

He said he views Casino Free NH as "a group of folks who generally agree with the governor's budget priorities, support the governor, but oppose casinos."

The Casino Free New Hampshire group also includes state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, Geoff Clark, former state Sen. Harold Janeway, Alice Chamberlin, Mary McGowan, Cathy Silber, Carol Backus, Carol Moore, Bob Williams, Cleve Kapala
Betsy Janeway, Carol Moore, Janet Ward, Rep. Christy Bartlett, retired Bishop Douglas Theuner, Raymond Goodman, Prof. Emirita of Hospitality Management at UNH.

(For earlier Granite Status reports click on "Granite Status" above.)

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