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March 24. 2012 11:36PM

Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Another week, another hot topic


 

WHAT ARE THE ODDS? For the second week in a row, the House will be dealing with one of its most contentious issues.

This week, expanded gambling is the hot topic, an issue the House has struggled with since the Ways and Means Committee crafted a plan last fall largely in response to casinos in Massachusetts.

House Bill 593 received little attention until Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Stephen Stepanek, R-Milford, with the OK of House leadership, devised a gambling-related plan aimed at reducing state business taxes.

The current plan would allow four casinos in the Granite State, two large and two small, with up to 14,000 slot machines and 420 table games. One of the small casinos would have to be in an economically disadvantaged area of the state, most likely the North Country or Cheshire County.

Licenses for the bigger casinos would cost $50 million each; those for the smaller casinos would cost $20 million each. That money would go into the state's general fund.

The projected $290 million revenue from casino operations would be used to lower business taxes.

According to information Stepanek distributed, gambling revenue from the four casinos would lower the business enterprise tax rate from .75 percent to .25 percent and the business profits tax rate from 8.5 percent to 4.3 percent.

Advocates say having casinos in New Hampshire would prevent the loss of about $150 million in revenue to Massachusetts casinos each year.

Opponents say expanded gambling would be the equivalent of the biggest tax increase in state history and would rip apart the social and economic fabric of the state.

Bill opponent Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, called the latest version “the worst yet.”

“This bill will almost certainly put a casino within 50 miles of every man, woman and child in New Hampshire. Is that what you want for our state?” Hess said. “If we are to have casino gambling here in New Hampshire, let's do it right. This bill doesn't even come close.”

Both sides agree this week's vote, expected Wednesday or Thursday, will be close.

If the committee's plan goes down, Manchester Rep. Steve Vaillancourt has another proposal ready that would have the state control the casinos.

The Senate, meanwhile, has its own expanded-gambling plan, pitched by Manchester Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, which is on hold until the House acts.

Oh, and Gov. John Lynch has already said he would veto the House proposal if it made its way to his desk.

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CROSSOVER: This is the week the House must send all of its bills to the Senate and the Senate all its bills to the House, also known as “crossover.''

Crossover is always a long week for lawmakers, but this week appears to be particularly long for House members, who face about 45 bills Wednesday and Thursday.

Along with gambling, the House will be looking at several extremely controversial abortion bills, and another to allow New Hampshire to join with other states to create health care compacts and bypass federal requirements.

Also, final action will come on bills for a new school-building aid program, school vouchers, a welfare fraud program, repealing the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), forcing Public Service of New Hampshire to sell its power generating plants, dismantling the University System of New Hampshire's Chancellor's Office and changing the state retirement system for new hires.

The Senate will deal with rewrites of the state business and Limited Liability Corporation laws, the school-building aid program, changing the state retirement system, school vouchers, biennial legislative sessions, medical marijuana and reforming the medical injury claims process.

This will be a long week.

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MEDICAID MANAGED CARE: One of the most important contracts the Executive Council is apt to see this year is already raising some concerns and is not likely to come to a vote Wednesday, as was planned.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Nick Toumpas has contracts before the council for three different companies to administer the state's Medicaid program through a new managed-care program.

Using managed care instead of the current point-of-service system is expected to save the state tens of millions of dollars over the years.

The contracts are capped at $365 million for fiscal year 2013, which begins July 1. The total funding, covering about 130,000 recipients, would have an average benefit of $283 a month per individual.

The council has scheduled a special meeting Monday from 2:30 to 4 p.m. in Rooms 210-211 of the Legislative Office Building for the Health and Human Services Department to explain the contracts, which will appear on the council's March 28 agenda.

Several councilors have expressed concerns about the contracts, including some about access to health care in the North Country and other rural areas and the pay for health care providers.

Last week, a dozen organizations signed a letter asking the council to put off its vote for a month, so the contracts could be studied.

“These are multi-year, multi-billion dollar contracts and should not be rushed through without giving the public a chance to review them,'' said Kelly Clark, AARP New Hampshire state director. “Many of our children, our frail elders and people with complex medical needs rely on Medicaid and need to know the new system will support the care they need to maintain their health and safety.”

The letter says the contracts would significantly shift how the state covers services for Medicaid recipients.

Complicating the matter is the new Medicaid electronic billing and payment system that has been in the works for six or seven years but has yet to go live.

The new managed-care system is scheduled to be up and running July 1.

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SUBPOENA POWER: Before debate began on bills Wednesday, the House spent an hour deciding whether its committees should have subpoena power to call witnesses and secure information and documents.

On Wednesday, the House Rules Committee proposed changing House rules to let it, by majority vote and with the approval of the House speaker, grant subpoena power to committees if the committee has voted to ask for the authority.

Former House Speaker and current Speaker Pro Tem Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, presented the committee's request. In all instances, he said, there would be a public hearing and a public vote in the committee requesting subpoena power and a public hearing and a public vote before the Rules Committee. He noted, too, the House speaker could still overrule the committee.

“We need to give all our committees the ability to do their job,” Chandler said.

But Rep. Gary Richardson, D-Hopkinton, said, “This is a very dangerous proposal. In all instances when the House has issued subpoenas in the past, it has been done by resolution by this House for a specific case, for a specific reason.”

He also warned an individual served with a legislative subpoena does not have the same constitutional protections as a person served with an executive branch subpoena.

Richardson's arguments did little to sway the House, which voted, 214-114, to give the committee subpoena authority.

No Democrat voted for the rule change, but 21 Republicans joined with 93 Democrats in opposing it.

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DURING THE SUBPOENA DEBATE, the House Redress of Grievances Committee chairman said his members have been increasingly frustrated with the Division of Children and Family Services, a frequent target in the complaints filed with the committee.

Because its cases are confidential by law, the division has refused to supply information and witnesses in many cases.

Even when the grievance committee prepared generic questions about some cases, it received either inadequate answers or none at all, Chairman Paul Ingbretson said.

“It is our duty to determine the allegations made before us, whether laws need to be changed, if there are bad servants in our departments,” said Rep. Ingbretson, R-Pike. “We need to get to the bottom of it.”

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A SPLIT IN LEADERSHIP: For last week's debate on repealing gay marriage, House Speaker William O'Brien turned over the podium to House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt.

Such a change usually means the speaker wants to comment on the bill, but O'Brien did not.

And usually the presiding officer does not vote on the bill unless there is a tie or to create a tie.

However, when the final vote came to kill House Bill 437, Bettencourt voted with the 211-116 majority.

O'Brien voted not to kill the bill.

The next day, the bill's main sponsor, Rep. David Bates, R-Windham, said he was blindsided by the House Majority Office's opposition to his proposed non-binding referendum on the issue. “I wish they had told me,” he said.

Garry Rayno writes State House Dome weekly for New Hampshire Sunday News. E-mail him at grayno@unionleader.com.


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