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January 28. 2014 8:56PM

UPDATED: Senate committee approves casino gambling bill

CONCORD — The money generated by two casinos would help the state finish I-93 expansion, and promote economic development and higher education, said supporters of a bill endorsed by a Senate panel Tuesday on a 4-1 vote.
 
Senate Bill 366 is similar to a bill the Senate passed last year with the backing of Gov. Maggie Hassan; that bill was killed in the House.
 
Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said after the Ways and Means Committee vote he expects the Senate will pass SB 366, and then table it until the House acts on its casino gambling bills.
 
House Bill 1633 — sponsored by three members of the Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority — would have just one casino.
 
Hassan’s office said Tuesday the governor’s focus is the House bill. She urged lawmakers with concerns about regulation to consider the carefully crafted proposal.
 
“As our state stands to lose an estimated $75 million per year to Massachusetts casinos, the governor continues to believe that developing New Hampshire’s own plan for a casino will help create jobs, boost our economy, and generate revenue to invest in critical priorities,” said her communications director Marc Goldberg. “Governor Hassan is focused on the legislation produced by the Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority, which developed thoughtful, bipartisan recommendations for how to best move forward with and regulate one destination casino in New Hampshire, as well as the hundreds of millions of dollars in gambling already taking place in New Hampshire.”
 
Two locations
 
SB 366, sponsored by longtime casino advocate Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, would establish two casinos with a combined 5,000 video slot machines and 240 table games. One casino would be twice as large as the other.
 
“We were severely criticized last year for having one location tailored to one entity,” D’Allesandro said. “This has two locations and anyone can compete for those licenses.”
 
Supporters, including Morse, said the casinos would provide jobs and economic development without new taxes.
 
“This bill will drive the economy,” Morse said, noting it will open up development in the I-93 corridor. “The economy is not moving like everyone thought it would be.”
 
But opponents said the crime, addiction and social costs a casino would bring outweighs any financial benefit to the state.
 
“For a casino to be successful, the citizens have to lose,” said South Hampton Police Chief Eddie Edwards, representing the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police. “I cannot support a public policy that wagers on its people losing.”
 
The hospitality and tourism industries, entertainment centers and religious organizations opposed the bill, along with The Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling and Casino Free New Hampshire.
 
Several unions supported the bill, as did the NH Motor Speedway and the NH Motor Transport Association.
 
Spending the money
 
D’Allesandro’s bill would provide about $168 million in revenue a year once the casinos are up and running, according to figures from the NH Lottery Commission, with $125 million in application and licensing fees.
 
Casino operators would see profits of $410 million annually, according to commission estimates.
 
Under the bill, the state would tax video slot machines 25 percent while another 5 percent would go to host communities — 3 percent for the host and 2 percent for the surrounding towns — and 1 percent for problem gambling programs.
 
Of the state money, 45 percent would go to the state’s 10-year highway plan — including finishing I-93 expansion between Salem and Manchester; 45 percent would go to higher education for public and private colleges.
 
Ten percent would be used for economic development — 5 percent for the North Country and 5 percent for the rest of the state.
 
The 14 percent tax on table games would go into the Education Trust Fund, which helps pay for state education aid to school districts.
 
“New Hampshire needs something and needs it now,” said D’Allesandro during the public hearing. “If we don’t fix some of the problems we have now, we will not go forward, we will go backward.”
 
‘Not a problem-solver’
 
Committee Chair Bob Odell, R-Lempster, who voted against the bill, said over the years there have been a number of reasons given to pass casino gambling. He said it was initially to save horse racing, but now it is jobs and economic development.
 
“This is a Christmas tree distribution system. It’s never been about how the money is used,’ he said. “It’s ‘We want a casino.’ This is not a problem-solver.”
 
Jim Putnam of Keene testified on behalf of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling and Casino Free New Hampshire, saying his group opposes all the bills before the legislature to expand gaming.
 
“Any revenue the state might gain from casinos and slot machines will be negated by the crime, addiction and social costs associated with expanded gambling,” he said.
 
Putnam said the state would become addicted to the revenue and approve additional casinos.
 
“Once we are in, more will follow,” he said. “No state has ever stopped at one casino.”
 
A public hearing on HB 1633 is scheduled for Feb. 6 at 9 a.m. in Rooms 202-204 of the Legislative Office Building.
 
grayno@unionleader.com

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