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NH casino vote is on again in House

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 28. 2014 9:34PM

CONCORD — New Hampshire casino proponents are expanding on expanded legalized gambling.

The latest measure under consideration would allow a pair of casinos instead the single location outlined in a bill rejected less than two months ago in the House of Representatives.

House members will vote Wednesday on a Senate bill that revived expanded gambling for at least one more round of the 2014 session before it ends in June.

"I really believe this is showdown time. That's why I really believe this will pass," said Rep. Bob Elliott of Salem.

Elliott is optimistic that SB 366 and the estimated revenue it could bring the state are appealing enough to sway representatives who rejected HB 1633 in early March.

While proposals to expand legalized gambling in New Hampshire are nothing new, getting one through the House would be a first. The issue has been presented in various forms for years and never survived a session. It's come up often enough that some lawmakers feel it's like a blackjack hand gone bust, drawing too many cards and going well over the limit with repeated votes on the same topic.

"I think they want to get rid of this one way or the other," said Elliott, who remained hopeful Monday about the upcoming vote.

Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, the prime sponsor of SB 366, has touted it as something new that would benefit all of New Hampshire by restoring revenue with a sum of $25.2 million to be distributed in communities throughout the state. The two-casino proposal also alleviates concerns of one casino monopolizing the state.

"It's in the hands of the House now," D'Allesandro said. "I think certain things have happened that would have an effect on their thinking."

One recent development is a court ruling that found New Hampshire's Medicaid Enhancement Tax to be unconstitutional, which could leave the state facing a huge shortfall and in need of money that will need to come from somewhere. Implementing a state taxes on income and sales are unlikely, leaving few options.

Whether the changes in D'Allessandro's bill are significant enough to produce a new result will be seen Wednesday. House members will first vote on Ways and Means Committee recommendation from earlier this month to kill the bill outright. If the votes are there to oppose the recommendation, the floor will open for amendment proposals, which would also require approval by vote.

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt predicted the vote will be closer than the one in March.

"I think this is best chance that we've ever had of getting it through the House," Vaillancourt said. "Does that mean it's going to pass? Probably not."

Vaillancourt said the bill could be tabled during amendment discussions and stashed away for another year. But he also said there is enough merit in SB 366 for his colleagues to consider expanding upon as a potential source of revenue.

Vaillancourt has his own amendment in mind, but is willing to compromise. He said an amendment that would provide the state a 40 percent cut of the casino revenue as well as the Senate agreeing to give on decriminalizing marijuana within certain quantities.

"It becomes a question of whether you're willing to compromise," Vaillancourt said.

Rep. Frank Sapareto, a member of the Ways and Means committee, also mentioned marijuana while discussing the gambling measure's prospects, saying a softer stance on personal use of the drug may be something the state needs to reconsider — especially if gambling is not expanded.

"Optimistically, I think we're still a year away from a successful bill," Sapareto said. "Voters need to really look at how their legislators are voting. They need to pay attention."

Sapareto said too many lawmakers in the past were opposed to expanded gambling in principle, dooming numerous bills.

"It didn't matter what the details were or what the proposal was," Sapareto said.

Sapareto said lawmakers need to be realistic about generating revenue to fund the state government and address contentious issues such as gambling and marijuana.

D'Allesandro's proposes legalizing two casinos sharing a total of 5,000 video slot machines and 240 table games. The bill the House killed in March would have legalized one casino licensed to have 5,000 video slot machines. It calls for the state to receive a 35 percent cut, which the state Lottery commission estimated to be about $168 million.

"This is such big issue," Sapareto said. "We need to accept that even part of something great is still substantial."

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