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November 17. 2012 11:30PM

Hassan win offers hope to gambling proponents


 

CONCORD - After 18 years of failure, proponents of slot machine and casino gambling say that with Maggie Hassan heading to the State House corner office, their time may have come.

But not so fast, say opponents.

Gov.-elect Hassan supports a casino. Massachusetts is on its way to building several casinos. And Maine has two in operation now that are patronized by Granite Staters.

State Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, the leading legislative advocate of expanded gambling, said he is "cautiously optimistic" about the prospects next year, "but underline 'cautiously.'

"We need the money," he said. "We've always needed the jobs, but I think we need them more now than in the past. I think we have a good opportunity to pass it in the state Senate."

The biggest obstacle, D'Allesandro said, may be what it always has been - the House of Representatives.

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, who proposed state-run and controlled gambling facilities as a state senator and Senate president, agreed.

"You've got a governor in favor and a state Senate that I think would give you the votes. It really comes down to the vote in the House," he said Friday.

The 400-member House, while often unpredictable, has reliably opposed gambling for years, regardless of the party in the majority. Last year, it defeated a bill to allow two "video lottery facilities," otherwise known as slot machine parlors, and, as usual, it wasn't close. The roll call was 236-108.

D'Allesandro said that with about 100 new members entering on Dec. 5, "I worry about the House."

Rep. Edmond Gionet, R-Lincoln, a six-term proponent of casinos in southern and northern New Hampshire, is perplexed.

"We've been on the soap box about this for a long time, needing the jobs and new revenue," he said. "I just don't understand the mentality of the House.''

But former and returning Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, once chairman of the Finance Committee, said, "The House has never supported gambling, and I don't see any reason for that to change."

"I don't think it's fait accompli at all," said Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett.

"We had a major shift in 2008 when the Democrats came in, and casinos bit the dust," he said. "We had a major shift two years ago, when the Republicans came in, and casinos bit the dust.

"I just have a gut feeling that this House is going to have the same negative disposition toward casinos," Hess said.

The next House will have new leaders. Former Speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, defeated Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, for the leadership of the new majority caucus when it met Saturday. (Related story, Page A2.) Norelli, who has been against expanded gambling, said after the vote that she is "neutral'' on the issue and plans to support whatever position the House votes to take. Campbell has supported the expansion of gambling opportunities.

The Republican minority has chosen an expanded gambling opponent, former Speaker Gene Chandler, as its leader.

But gambling has been an issue in which House leaders have not tried to coax or pressure the rank and file. It has traditionally been a "vote your conscience" issue, and the House has never supported expanded gambling.

The Senate has been consistently in favor, and even with 10 new members in the 24-member body, next year should be no different.

Hassan campaigned in favor of a single "high-end casino." She said it would help create jobs, "capture revenue that would otherwise be spent in other states, and help New Hampshire fund education and other essential state services."

Contrary to Gov. John Lynch, she also believes the state "can develop a casino plan that will protect our brand as a family-friendly state with a great outdoor economy."

In a Sunday News interview, Hassan emphasized her support for one casino, with a site to be chosen through competitive bidding, and would oppose more than one.

She said legislation can be written to prevent gambling proliferation once it gains a foothold, a danger cited by Lynch and other foes.

"You make clear why the state has strong and compelling interest in having just one site," she said, "and then you have to manage it going forward."

Jim Rubens, a former state senator and chairman of the Granite State Coalition against Expanded Gambling, said, "The gambling forces will have a problem with the House, and they won't get it through the House."

He said Hassan's support for only one casino, which he believes would most likely be proposed for Rockingham Park, will be opposed by lawmakers in other areas that also want casinos.

And, he said, "there are still a number of free market-oriented Republicans who dislike the idea of monopolies."

At Salem's Rockingham Park, once home to horse racing, the hope is that a long wait for casino gambling may be nearly over.

"I think the prospect for enactment this session is very good," said Jim Demers, a lobbyist for Millennium Gaming, a part-owner with an option to buy the track.

Millennium would raze and replace the track grandstand and build a separate casino for slot machines and table games.

Demers said casino gambling in Massachusetts and Maine may be as much an impetus to getting gambling passed next year as a supportive governor.

Several studies in recent years have concluded that once Rockingham is up and running with a casino, and with three casinos operating in Massachusetts, the Salem track would provide state coffers with about $115 million annually.

In the first year, the track, or any licensee, would pay the state $50 million for a five-year license.

Demers said the Rockingham project would provide 2,000 "direct and indirect" construction jobs and 2,500 permanent jobs.

Another likely bidder would be the Greenmeadow Golf Club in Hudson, which has teamed with a developer for the Sagamore Crossing casino project.

It has guaranteed the state $100 million in revenue, but expects that as a destination resort, the figure would actually be higher.

"I don't think anything is going to be a slam dunk," said former state Sen. Bob Clegg, who lobbies for Greenmeadow.

"We think our project is a better project overall because we're not just a casino. We're actually a convention center bringing other business," said Clegg. "So, we think this works out well."

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John DiStaso may be reached at jdistaso@unionleader.com.


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