UPDATED: House committee votes to kill casino bill
CONCORD — Casino gambling in New Hampshire was not a good bet for the House Ways and Means Committee Tuesday as it voted 11-9 to kill the bill that would establish one high-end casino in the state.
Bill 1633 would establish the regulatory framework and oversight authority for a casino with up to 5,000 video slot machines and 150 table games, which some estimate would produce about $100 million a year in revenue when operating at capacity.
Revisions to the bill increasing the authority of the Attorney General’s Office in determining who could hold a license, maintaining charity gaming revenue, protecting the Verizon Wireless Arena and sending additional money to local communities did not sway enough members to pass the bill.
Supporters said it is time for New Hampshire to act or lose millions in state revenue to Massachusetts and its new casinos.
Rep. Richard Ames, D-Jaffrey, is the bill’s prime sponsor and the chair of the Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority, which worked to develop the regulatory framework to oversee expanded gambling. He said the proposed changes make it a better bill that addresses some of the concerns raised by committee members and the public hearing.
“This is a carefully constructed bill,” Ames said.
But opponents said the social and political costs of a casino are too high and there are better ways to raise money.
Committee Chair Rep. Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, said casino gambling will create more problems down the road and increase demands for state services.
“The (revenue) hole it fills is much smaller than the hole we have in this state,” Almy said. “What starts as a very small problem becomes a much larger problem in the future.”
Others said casinos will hurt the state’s family-friendly reputation and increase problem gambling; it also gives the gaming commission too much power, opponents said.
“This bill may be improved,” said Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, “but there are still no meaningful checks and balances.
If the legislature fails to pass the bill, said Rep. William Butynski, D-Hinsdale, charities will lose money when the Massachusetts casinos open.
“The only question is how much of a loss,” he said. “If you vote against this bill, you must take responsibility for that.”
He said committee members can disagree over how much revenue a casino would produce — estimates range from $40 million to more than $100 million — but even the lower figure would begin to address the state’s critical needs.
“I think this bill is essential,” Butynski said.
Anti-gambling groups were pleased with the committee’s vote, saying it reflects a reasoned decision after a thorough look at the bill.
“The committee found that casinos and slot machines are not a sustainable form of state revenue,” said Harold Janeway and Steve Duprey, spokesmen for The Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling and Casino Free NH. “Regulation doesn’t make a bad idea better. And we can’t have casino money without casino problems.”
Last year some House members said the state needed a framework before approving a casino; they defeated Senate Bill 152, which would have established a casino in southern New Hampshire.
The House will act on HB 1633 before the end of the month. Committee members favoring a casino said they will fight to overturn the Ways and Means recommendation and pass the bill.
The Senate has already approved a bill allowing two casinos, but put the bill aside to see what the House does with HB 1633.
The committee also voted to kill three other casino bills Tuesday, two that would have allowed six casinos in various parts of the state.