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Republicans say top Democratic lawmaker right not to bank on casino licensing revenue in NH budget

Senior Political Reporter

March 01. 2013 11:28AM

CONCORD -- Republicans on Thursday agreed with the view of the Democratic chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee that it would be a "mistake" to include $80 million in casino licensing revenue in the House budget before a gambling bill passes the Legislature.

Finance chair Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, told the "Granite Status" political column on Wednesday she is asking finance committee divisions, in their nuts-and-bolts budget work, to find as much savings as possible as part of an overall effort to come up with at least $80 million in savings to offset the Gov. Maggie Hassan's proposed $80 million casino licensing revenue for fiscal 2014 and 2015.

As the divisions work on the budget, Wallner said, "I have to start to look at where we'll go in that we haven't got a position on gambling. To accept revenue of $80 million would really be a mistake, especially if it didn't show up later."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Morse of Salem, the Republican sponsor of the gambling bill backed by Hassan and the chief Senate budget writer, said Thursday he has been clear about his own stance. It appears no different than Wallner's position.

"When the House passes the gambling bill, then I'll put it in the budget," Morse said.

House Republican Leader Gene Chandler of Bartlett said he agreed with Wallner.

"Not only is (Hassan's proposed budget) contingent on legislation that, in the past, has failed in the House dozens of times," Chandler said, "there is also no guarantee that we would actually receive those fees in a timely manner, or even in this next budget period."

Chandler said even if gambling is legalized, the license bidding process could lead to litigation, which, he said, could delay receipt of the licensing funds.

Citing lawsuits involving the Liquor Commission's award of a warehouse contract, Chandler said, "When you're dealing with single vendors or licenses with industries or contracts worth millions of dollars, you're bound to run into issues where someone thinks the process is unfair."

Hassan spokesman Marc Goldberg said the governor has proposed a balanced budget with no broad-based taxes "that keeps general fund spending below 2008 levels while investing in priorities critical for building an innovation economy and creating good jobs that can support a strong middle class. It includes conservative baseline revenue estimates and endorses a bipartisan Senate plan to license one high-end casino, a plan that is strongly supported by the people of New Hampshire.

"All budgets require accompanying legislation passing to balance and every budget process requires a back and forth with the Legislature," Goldberg said.

Goldberg said Hassan "is always willing to work with members of both parties who have thoughtful ideas to offer. We encourage Representative Chandler to contribute his own constructive solutions to New Hampshire's budget challenges if he has any."

State Republican Chair Jennifer Horn also agreed with Wallner, but then went on to say Hassan "is relying on House Democrats to come up with a 'Plan B' to offset the non-existent and illegal revenue in her proposal."

She called it "an outrageous and disgraceful example of failed leadership" by Hassan.

"It is Maggie Hassan's job to propose a balanced budget, manage the budget process, and fix the $80 million hole that could result from her reckless revenue scheme," Horn said.

State Democratic Chairman Raymond Buckley countered that Horn "doesn't have even a basic understanding how the American form of government works. I would think that anyone serving as a state party chair would know that the Executive proposes a budget to the Legislature who then uses it as a base to create a compromise budget passed by the House and Senate and sent to the Executive to be signed, vetoed or allowed to become law without signature.

"Every child who paid attention to 'School House Rocks' understands this. Instead of sending out hysterical press releases she should borrow an elementary school textbook," Buckley said.

Buckley said Hassan's budget is responsible and Republican senators have praised her "conservative revenue estimates," but, "The far-right House Republicans have put forward precisely nothing to strengthen our economy or address our challenges."

Also this week, Democratic state Rep. Peter Leishman of Peterborough, who chairs one of the three finance committee divisions, said that if gambling is not approved, "obviously there would be a big hole" in the budget, "and there hasn't been a lot of support in the House for casino gambling."

Leishman said that personally, he has no problem with the governor's casino plan, "but it's still a venue that we can't count on.

"We're going down the budget line-by-line trying" to find savings, he said.

Officially, the state Republican Party opposes casino gambling in its platform because of "negative social consequences" and as "a means to balance the budget or increase spending."

But a number Republicans in the state Senate support it.

Morse called the criticism of Hassan and gambling from Horn and the state GOP "the political side of it.

"As the finance chair I have to keep my eye on the ball in putting a budget together," he said. "The Republican Party is going to do what it's going to do."

Separately, Morse said in a statement he agreed with Hassan that the lawmakers should move quickly on gambling "in order to reap the revenue benefits and establish a clientele before Massachusetts is able to get their operation off the ground."

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said he has not yet taken a position on the Morse casino bill.

But he called Wallner's approach "very reasonable at this point. Even if gambling were to pass the Senate, it's uncertain the House will pass it and even if it is passed and signed into law, there is significant uncertainty as to when the money would be available and if it would be available in this budget cycle."

By the time the budget reaches the Senate, the situation will be more clear, said Bradley, "But I'm still concerned that even if everything were to fall into place, it may not produce the revenue it's supposed to" in the current budget cycle.

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