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March 17. 2013 12:55AM

Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Battle over casinos
 far from over


 

THE HEAT IS ON: Expanded gaming proponents are feeling the momentum and are a bit more positive after last week's votes in Salem and the Senate.

By a two-to-one majority, with bipartisan support and multiple reasons, the Senate voted two-to-one for SB 152, which would establish one casino with up to 5,000 video slot machines and 150 table games.

Salem voted four-to-one in favor of allowing a casino in the community.

Now the real work begins as proponents try to convince enough House members that gambling is the only sizeable and reliable revenue source for funding the services they believe in: increased aid to higher education, improved mental health services and help for hospitals owed large sums for charity care.

Gov. Maggie Hassan, who has budgeted $80 million in casino licensing fee revenue, visited the House Democratic caucus Wednesday, pushing the bill, with many detractors in the majority caucus.

According to several caucus members, the reaction to Hassan's pitch was robust, as was reaction to a later pitch from a representative opposing gambling.

The essence of Hassan's pitch was the same as it has been since her budget speech last month, if you want more money for higher education, mental health, Children in Need of Services, to end the developmentally disabled wait list and for hospitals you need to support gambling.

Without the new revenue, she told the caucus and in a press release, "we will risk falling behind economically, we will risk losing out on good jobs and innovative businesses, and we will risk letting the people of our state be denied access to the basic services needed to support their health and safety."

Several Senate Democrats gave the same reason for voting aye, particularly David Watters of Dover, who opposed expanded gambling as a House member; Molly Kelly of Keene, and Senate Minority Leader Sylvia Larsen of Concord. All said if there were another revenue source, they would support it.

Gambling supporters and opponents acknowledge the pressure is on.

Segments of the state Republican hierarchy see an opportunity to keep Hassan from achieving her top priorities by eliminating the gambling revenue. They are working their side of the aisle by appealing to party loyalty and future success.

Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, said people are coming out of the woodwork to oppose the bill knowing what is at stake.

"We're hearing more than ever before in opposition and the intensity on our side is the highest it has ever been," Rubens said. "It is going to be a heck of a fight."

"They can do horse trading inside the budget. We can't do that," Rubens said, "but we have people who passionately want to protect their communities, their families and their quality of life."

He said the governor has invited representatives of his organization to meet with her Monday.

"This is the first time casino supporters ever asked us to confer with them, but we will not change our minds," Rubens said. "They might be counting the House votes the same way we do and realize they do not have votes, but we're not backing off. No casino of any kind at any time."

Not only has Hassan's office contacted the coalition against gambling, it has reached out to the mental health community, saying if you want the $28 million for improved services, you need to support gambling.

Hassan also has others working lawmakers. Former state Senator Mary Louise Hancock of Concord has been calling Merrimack County representatives. Similar calls are being made in other counties.

Most expect this fight to go on for the next few months with little incentive to bring the bill to a vote this early in the session.

There will be gambling votes in the House, including two this week that are expected to be killed. The vote that really matters is after Senate and House budget writers negotiate the next biennium's budget. The final vote on the budget will be the final word on expanded gambling.

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RIGHT-TO-KNOW: And Hassan has urged some of her department heads to make themselves available to answer gambling questions from lawmakers, which had state Republican Party Chairman Jennifer Horn jumping into the gambling fight last week.

Horn filed right-to-know requests with Hassan's office and then with the Lottery Commission.

The dispute began with emails from two members of the House Ways and Means Committee, which will decide on SB 152 before the House acts on it. Both Chair Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, and David Hess, R-Hooksett, are long-time opponents of expanding gambling.

The emails concern Lottery Executive Director Charlie McIntyre's calls to several members of the committee offering to meet with them and answer any questions they might have about the bill.

An awkward exchange between NH Public Radio reporter Josh Rogers and Hassan caught on tape prompted Horn to seek "all records from your office regarding any attempt made by you or your staff to compel the New Hampshire Lottery Commission to lobby legislators to support casino gambling. This includes any written or electronic communications from you and your staff."

Hassan chief of staff Pam Walsh quickly replied that there are no written or electronic communications on the subject and said Horn was misinformed because the governor encourages her department heads to reach out to legislators and make themselves available to answer questions on many issues not just gambling.

She said the governor has not had any recent discussions with the lottery director, but did encourage him to reach out to lawmakers to be a resource on SB 152.

Walsh called such outreach "an important tradition and one we intend to continue in order to ensure the collaborative process between branches that is needed to best serve the people of New Hampshire."

Horn retorted that Walsh had acknowledged Hassan urging department heads to lobby lawmakers on the gambling issue.

"Your decision to use the Office of the Governor to compel Executive Branch officials to lobby the legislature on your irresponsible and illegal $80 million revenue scheme raises serious ethical questions," Horn wrote.

Horn asked the Lottery's McIntyre to "provide me with all records from the New Hampshire Lottery Commission regarding Governor Hassan's ethically questionable, Executive Branch casino lobbying effort."

Horn cited RSA 15:5, which states "no recipient of a grant or appropriation of state funds may use the state funds to lobby or attempt to influence legislation, participate in political activity, or contribute funds to any entity engaged in these activities."

The 2006 law was intended to stop groups receiving state contracts from using state money to lobby legislators. The law includes a provision saying the groups could do lobbying work if they segregate the state funds from lobbying efforts.

State department heads have long lobbied lawmakers, mainly on the budget, but also on policy issues. Attorneys general, for example, have a long history of opposing expanded gaming.

Receiving her due: Last week the House overwhelmingly approved a joint resolution telling the Legislative Historical Committee to acquire and display a portrait of Marilla Marks Ricker, the first woman to vote in the United States.

Ricker lived in Dover when she cast her first ballot in 1871. Ricker was born in New Durham and educated in New London where she met her husband, John Ricker. Eventually they settled in Dover.

When her husband died at an early age, she became a lawyer and fought for women's suffrage.

A similar bill was approved about a decade ago when U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen was governor, but it was never funded.

Now the Legislative Historical Committee has the money to buy or commission a portrait, but is working on a project to repair State House portraits in dire need of rehabilitation.

grayno@unionleader.com



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