Today, House lawmakers will cast their votes on Senate Bill 152, a plan to allow a casino in our state. This proposal has overwhelming support of the public, as polls show two-thirds support gambling.
Both candidates for governor, Gov. Maggie Hassan and Republican Ovide Lamontange, campaigned last fall in support of a casino plan. SB 152 received a bipartisan 16-8 vote from the Senate earlier this year, the highest vote total a casino bill ever received from that body. The plan creates a solid foundation for the gambling debate.
A special committee of 45 House members set about the task of finding the best ways possible to build on this foundation and create a strong gambling proposal for fair consideration. The committee amendment addresses the concerns that were brought before the committee. Over the course of many days of research, review and testimony, a number of us in the House crafted an amendment to improve SB 152.
Among the improvements:
• Stronger and more timely regulations to be in place before the casino is licensed;
• A casino application process that is fair to all prospective applicants;
• Improved oversight and enforcement to protect against criminal activity, undue political influence and corruption;
• Specific language to encourage the hiring of New Hampshire residents;
• Enhanced protections for charitable gaming as well as existing entertainment venues.
We listened to the concerns of those who wanted a stronger proposal. We heard from our constituents who want to pass gambling, but only a plan that will ensure long-term revenues, minimal impacts and strict regulations.
We crafted this improved plan with the full intention of offering it to the committee, and we expected a majority would support our idea. Unfortunately, no vote was taken and the debate was prematurely cut short.
But we know the committee amendment is the right approach to take. This plan will be offered to the full House today, and we believe our colleagues will recognize the improvements.
Opponents have tried to argue the original plan is too flawed and not worth any work. It's not enough to say the bill is flawed and just give up. That is giving in to the will of opponents who do not want to see any gambling proposal pass the House. It's an excuse, and it is not how we do things in the Legislature.
That's not why voters sent us to Concord. They expect us to do our work and finish the job. There's a lot at stake.
SB 152 will bring hundreds of millions of new private investment dollars into New Hampshire for the construction of a new high-end, highly regulated casino. This huge capital investment is being made with private funds, but will certainly benefit a multitude of local building and building supply companies. It will also lead to greatly expanded permanent employment opportunities once the casino commences operations.
In addition, the casino will provide critically needed revenue to meet state and local needs, helping to close gaps in funding for higher education, school building and other local aid, uncompensated care by hospitals, mental health and addiction services, and assistance with economic development in the North Country. These are non-tax dollars that have the support of an overwhelming number of voters, the New Hampshire Senate and the governor.
With Massachusetts aggressively moving forward with expanded gambling, if New Hampshire does not develop a plan, the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies concluded the state will lose $75 million a year to Massachusetts in rooms and meals tax revenue, lottery revenue and social costs. The time has come.
We urge our colleagues to give us a chance to respect public opinion and move forward now, before we lose out to Massachusetts. Let's have the debate.
Rep. Gary S. Azarian of Salem is a Republican member of the House Ways and Means Committee.