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Both sides praise gambling oversight committee's work, but differences remain

Union Leader Statehouse Bureau
February 06. 2014 7:35PM

CONCORD — New Hampshire would be joining the major leagues of casino gambling if it approves a House bill allowing one high-end destination casino, opponents and supporters said Thursday.

Gambling foes and proponents at a packed legislative hearing on House Bill 1633 praised the work of the Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority in establishing a regulatory structure and framework that would govern a new casino as well as all other gaming in the state, including the Lottery, charitable gaming and horse and dog racing.

But that was where the agreement ended.

“My company does not want a broad-based tax, a broad-based income or sales tax,” said Jay DelMonte, president and co-owner of the Shorty’s restaurant chain. “If it’s gaming you’re looking at for revenue, I’m all for it.”

“Casino gambling is the crack cocaine or heroin of revenue for legislatures,” said Steve Duprey, current Republican National Committeeman and spokesman for Casino Free NH and the NH Coalition Against Expanded Gambling. “It is a bad revenue source.”

Gov. Maggie Hassan supports the bill, saying in a letter the work of the gaming authority addresses the concerns raised last session when the House defeated Senate Bill 152. The Senate Thursday approved Senate Bill 366, which would allow two casinos, but held onto it to see what the House does with HB 1633.

Three members of the gaming regulatory authority are the main sponsors of HB 1633. The bill’s prime sponsor and authority chair, Rep. Richard Ames, D-Jaffrey, said it would allow someone to build a casino, but “doesn’t mandate a thing.”

The bill requires at least a $450 million investment, he noted, and the operator to reinvest 3.5 percent of revenue into the facility.

The one member of the authority who opposed the bill and final report, Attorney General Joseph Foster, acknowledged the authority “did a great job with the regulatory structure. If this is passed and is fully funded, it will give New Hampshire a shot at keeping organized crime and political corruption out of New Hampshire.”

But he said it will come as it has in every other state where casino gambling has been allowed. Right now a study places New Hampshire number 49 of states with political corruption, he noted.

“The gaming we have in New Hampshire now is the minor leagues — maybe even the little leagues – compared to what we have in this bill,” Foster told the House Ways and Means Committee.

Others were concerned a casino’s advertising campaign could dwarf all the good work the state has done to build its family-friendly brand.

“Please don’t vote to destroy an iconic brand. This is a special state,” Duprey said. “This is a bad choice for New Hampshire.”

But long-time New Hampshire advertising mogul Patrick Griffin disagreed. New Hampshire is known for its White Mountains, lakes and fall foliage and for the first-in-the nation presidential primary, he said.

“So as someone who has practiced the art of branding for a very long time, there is no doubt in my mind that our brand won’t change — it simply can’t be changed,” Griffin said. “It’s too well-known, too admired and our guests are far too diverse in what they seek.”

At Thursday’s public hearing, several changes were proposed to the bill, including one to limit a casino’s entertainment center to 1,500 seats or less and to hold charities harmless that benefit from legal charitable gambling.

“There is no competition when it comes to going up against a casino,” said Verizon Wireless Arena Regional General Manager Tim Bechert. Lynn Kilchenstein, a board member for the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, said local cultural facilities cannot compete against the deep pockets of casinos.

The Ways and Means Committee will hold work sessions on the bill over the next two weeks.

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