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March 20. 2013 10:13PM

Casino foes give it their all in pitch to NH lawmakers

CONCORD - Opponents of expanded gambling in New Hampshire mustered their forces for a full-court press Wednesday, as a panel of prominent speakers took turns urging a roomful of lawmakers to vote against the idea at a well-attended forum across the street from the State House.

The informational luncheon for legislators at the Concord Holiday Inn was sponsored by the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, and attracted about 200 state representatives and senators.

A representative of the N.H. Council of Churches said the idea was immoral. A former attorney general said it would destroy the New Hampshire way of life. A GOP national committee member and former state party chair said it would damage the state's brand as a tourist destination.

The former president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation said it would "weaken the social capital that holds us together."

And a senior Democratic lawmaker with years of budget-writing experience said lawmakers shouldn't feel compelled to choose gambling over program cuts.

"Do not feel for a nanosecond that you have to support gambling to fund the programs you care about," said Marjorie Smith, D-Durham.

In response to questions after the presentation, lawmakers were told that gambling would have a corrosive effect on state politics, due to lobbying and campaign contributions by gambling interests; that gaming is declining in other states that had banked on it for big revenue; that the rooms and meals taxes the state relies on will decline; and that entertainment venues now operating in the state will see a 7 to 15 percent decline in revenues.

Former attorney general Phil McLaughlin, who served from 1997 to 2002, invoked retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter, recalling a letter from the New Hampshire jurist, who succeeded Warren Rudman as New Hampshire attorney general in 1976.

"He (Souter) felt of all the things that could happen in this state, that casino gambling would have the most destructive effect on the way of life in New Hampshire," McLaughlin said.

GOP activist Steve Duprey reminded Republicans in the room that opposition to expanded gambling is embedded in the GOP platform they were elected to represent. He described how casinos have had a damaging effect on the hospitality business in surrounding communities wherever they are located.

Lew Feldstein, former president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and a member of the Governor's Gaming Study Commission, predicted the state would see 10,000 new gambling addicts and a spike in serious crime in the communities near the casino.

"Once it gets approved, and we have gambling, it will never go away," he said. "It will only grow and spread."

Smith, now in her eighth term as a state representative, said Gov. Maggie Hassan's position that gambling revenues are necessary to fund the state university system and many social services creates a false choice.

"If you are opposed to gambling, but support these programs, it's not either, or," she said.

For her part, Hassan said she intends to continue to push for one high-end, well-regulated casino along the border with Massachusetts, where at least three casinos will be licensed in the near future. In a briefing with reporters after the Executive Council meeting, as the anti-gambling luncheon was under way, the governor said the state cannot afford to walk away from $75 million a year once a casino is up and running, not to mention $80 million to $100 million in licensing fees to get started. "The people of New Hampshire support the priorities we've identified in our budget and they support one casino," she said. "It's really critical that we seize that opportunity in this window of time. Without doing so, we will lose $75 million a year."

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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