Battle lines drawn, again, over latest casino gambling plan
CONCORD -- The battle lines are drawn again for another fight over casino gambling in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.
Three days after the state Senate passed legislation that would authorize two casinos and distribute $25 million in revenue sharing to cities and towns, dozens of opponents appeared at a news conference Monday calling the revised plan a desperate attempt to buy votes.
But a group of legislative supporters were also on hand at Legislative Office Building to make their case that casinos can provide much-needed revenue for the state and, under the new plan, for cities and towns’ property tax relief.
Spokesmen for the bipartisan anti-casino Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling and Casino Free New Hampshire accused proponents of trying to “buy” votes in the House by restoring revenue sharing, which was frozen by lawmakers in 2010.
“This is nothing but a bad idea made worse,” said state Republican National Committeeman Steve Duprey, speaking in his role as spokesman for the coalition.
“You can put lipstick on a pig and it’s still a pig,” he said. “This is adding just a little more rouge or a different tuxedo.”
Duprey said lawmakers know revenue sharing “is a false promise” because one Legislature cannot bind a future Legislature, and the revenue sharing could be eliminated or changed in the future.
Proponents acknowledged the revenue sharing piece may swing enough votes in the House to pass it.
“You put things in legislation that you think make sense for the people,” said state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, the Senate bill’s chief sponsor. “And the fact that we’re putting in $25.2 million going back to the people of New Hampshire, that’s not chicken feed.”
The House on March 13 rejected, 173-144, a bill with a detailed regulatory structure calling for a single casino with up to 5,000 video slot machines and 150 table games.
Proponents were unable to bring the revenue sharing piece to the House floor. It was later added to the Senate bill.
The Senate passed its bill 15-9 last Thursday. It calls for two casinos sharing a total of 5,000 and 240 table games. That bill now goes to the House.
Based on the House roll call vote, a swing of 15 votes is necessary to send the bill to Gov. Maggie Hassan.
The governor has been strongly in favor a single “high-end, highly-regulated” casino in the southern tier of the state.
Her spokesman, Marc Goldberg, said Monday she continues to prefer one casino, but in a statement, he did not close the door on a two-casino plan.
“Governor Hassan appreciates the Senate’s continued recognition that New Hampshire will soon see the impact of Massachusetts casinos right across our border in the form of lost revenue and potential social costs,” Goldberg said. “ The governor continues to believe that developing New Hampshire’s own plan for one highly regulated casino is the best course of action for investing in the priorities that are critical to long-term economic growth, and she encourages members of the House to take this opportunity to invest in New Hampshire’s needs, not Massachusetts’ needs.”
Democratic former state Sen. Harold Janeway of the anti-gambling coalition said those who argue that New Hampshire will lose revenue to Massachusetts casinos are saying, “We’d really prefer that they lost their money here.”
Duprey said that in past legislative votes, “New Hampshire has said ‘no’ consistently to casino gambling,” yet polls have consistently shown that most voters support it.
The most recent poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, last October, showed Granite Staters favoring a single casino, 59-33 percent.
Duprey responded, “I can assure you if I word the question right, I can make yo like the devil reincarnate.”
House Ways and Means Committee Chair Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, a strong gambling opponent, voiced concern that revenue sharing piece will swing enough House votes to pass the bill. She said some members “feel they are not able to explain to their constituents why they passed up money.
“They have to figure out whether they’re voting about the policy or about the next election. I don’t think very many, if any, can be bought,” Almy said.
Expanded gambling supporter Rep. Candace Bouchard, D-Concord, call it “disingenuous” for opponent to say casinos will hurt other entertainment venues, such as the Capitol Center for the Arts and the Verizon Wireless Arena.
“It’s just another thing to do in New Hampshire,” she said.
Bouchard, who is also a Concord city councilor, said that since revenue sharing was frozen in 2010, there has been “downshifting” of retirement and other costs to city and town property taxes.
“No matter what side of the issue we’re on, I think we can all agree that even with being strict and prudent, the general fund is not enough to fund the state,” said Bouchard.
Rep. Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston, a fiscal conservative who supports expanded gambling, said he hoped the addition of a second casino “will flip the deciding votes” because many House members viewed a single casino as a monopoly.
He said he is “insulted” that opponents say casino interests will control lawmakers.
“None of us go out and get big checks. We all use a few dollars and run,” he said.
D’Allesandro said, “The people of New Hampshire support gaming and have always supported gaming.”
Almy, meanwhile, concluded, “We’ve had so much debate over this for the past two years, that I’m sick of it.”