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Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Casino bill continues to mock Grim Reaper

State House Bureau

May 04. 2014 12:03AM

Casino gambling is the story that never ends.

By a one-vote margin last week, the House rejected casino gambling for the third time in the two-year term.

But the vote did not end the debate. A representative who supported the Ways and Means Committee's recommendation to kill the bill filed to reconsider the vote, which will be done Wednesday.

The razor-thin vote was decided by Deputy Speaker Naida Kaen, D-Lee, who was in the chair because Speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, was out of state.

If Kaen did not vote with the question tied at 172-172, the motion to kill Senate Bill 366 would have failed, and a motion to pass the bill would have been made.

But she did vote, and the motion to kill the bill prevailed.

To say the close vote was a surprise would be an understatement. It even caught casino supporters off guard, and they failed to ask for immediate reconsideration. Instead, leadership moved quickly to the third-reading motion, which ends the day and officially approves all the actions taken during the session.

A closer look at the roll call makes the vote a little clearer and indicates why it was so close.

If supporters had been successful and overturned the motion to kill the bill, eight amendments would have been in line for debate, some to make technical corrections, others to make more significant changes, such as increasing the tax rates and number of casinos, and others to add decriminalizing marijuana and Keno in restaurants, bars and clubs.

Some people who historically opposed casino gambling changed their vote so their pet project could be added to a bill the Senate and Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, really want.

Several weeks ago, Morse refused to let the bill decriminalizing marijuana into the Senate, citing rules that forbid bills killed in the first year of the two-year session to come before the Senate in the second year.

And Thursday, the Senate killed the bill authorizing the Lottery Commission to establish Keno.

Others who opposed SB 366 but preferred a different casino gambling plan also voted to overturn the committee and hoped to approve the bill with a different plan.

For all those reasons, 16 representatives who voted against House Bill 1633, which was the work of the Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority and was killed by about 30 votes in March, voted to overturn the committee report and keep the bill alive. The 16 comprised seven Democrats and nine Republicans.

Couple them with about a half-dozen casino gambling supporters who missed the vote on SB 1633 and you have enough switches to turn a 30-vote difference into a nearly tie vote.

Would all of those 20 to 25 representatives voted for the bill on final passage? Probably not, and that would have put a stake in the heart of casino gambling for this year.

But that is not what happened.

"We live to fight another day," said the bill's prime sponsor and longtime casino gambling proponent Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester.

And fight another day they will as House supporters are working to make sure the fence-sitters know what kind of financial crisis the state is facing.

The recent Medicaid Enhancement Tax ruling finding the tax unconstitutional and putting about $185 million of state revenue in jeopardy, although the real figure is lower than that, is being used, as is the April revenue report, which shows the state about $22 million below estimates for the month.

And others want to know what the state will face in Medicaid expansion costs in two years, when the federal government starts ramping down its share of the cost.

Gambling supporters were working over the weekend to try to have the membership understand the entire scope of the problem, several said.

Some cities and towns have also entered the fray recently, as both the Laconia and Somersworth city councils have voted to support SB 366.

The most recent community is Jaffrey, home of Democratic Rep. Dick Ames, who chaired the Gaming Regulatory Oversight Committee and was the prime sponsor of HB 1633.

All the communities cite restoring revenue-sharing as the main reason for their support. The bill would send $25.2 million back to cities and towns to begin restoring the program, which ended in 2009 when the state faced a significant budget deficit.

The outcome Wednesday is going to depend on who shows up, and both sides will be working hard to turn out their supporters.

If the House votes down reconsideration, that will be the end, but if it doesn't, there are now nine amendments to deal with. One amendment would kill the bill in the Senate - decriminalizing marijuana - but the others may not.

Order more popcorn, stock up on drinks and get ready for a long show Wednesday.

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MET Showdown: The House and Senate are scheduled to hear how to fix the hole the MET ruling left in the state budget.

But it appears the Senate has one solution and the House another.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday to go over an amendment to a bill to collect the MET quarterly instead of once in November and a true up the following July.

Last week, Morse said a short-term fix was needed to address the court's ruling and a long-term solution would phase out the MET assessed on hospitals' patient services.

Morse suggested hospitals and state tax officials need to agree what services are subject to the tax and suggested the state may not need as much money to help hospitals with uncompensated care, which should be reduced when more state residents are insured under Medicaid expansion.

Morse and Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bob Odell, R-New London, both want to start down the road to a long-term fix before lawmakers go home, but the House appears to have a different approach.

The House Ways and Means Committee will hold a public hearing on an as-yet-unreleased amendment dealing with the MET ruling Tuesday at 2 p.m. The amendment is not expected to be available until Monday.

Unlike the Senate, the House leadership is more inclined to do a short-term fix that would allow the state to continue receiving tax revenue until the next Legislature meets, in January.

If the House, Senate and Gov. Maggie Hassan agreed on a solution, there would not be two separate meetings.

The House and Hassan appear to be on the same page, while the Senate is on another. Reportedly, hospitals are also divided, with some not wanting to negotiate with the state on any agreement that would extend the MET in any way and others wanting to settle the issue and not worry about the next tax scheme lawmakers concoct to raise money from health care providers.

One option lawmakers could explore is to expand the MET to health care providers that currently are not taxed, such as private laboratories, radiology services and ambulatory surgery centers. The court decision opens the door to such a solution, and Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, who is on the House Ways and Means Committee, suggested such a plan with a reduction in the MET rate of 5.5 percent.

Such a plan would be difficult to sell in an election year.

Odell, Morse and D'Allesandro talked about applying the insurance premium tax to Medicaid bills, which would affect the three managed-care companies the state hired to run its Medicaid program. The proposal was floated last summer while a MET study commission met, but the idea has yet to be surface to address the court decision.

The two hearings Tuesday do not bode well for a quick end to the 2014 session, which could have been put to rest June 5.

"I wouldn't be booking my June vacation just yet," said one longtime observer.

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Senate Challenge: Libertarian and Tea Party-leaning Republicans promised primary challenges for Republican state senators who voted in favor of Medicaid expansion, and they appear to be backing up their threats.

Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, was one of the key senators in pushing for some form of expansion to provide health insurance to the state's working poor. She voted for the plan that eventually became law earlier this session.

North Hampton businessman Steve Kenda is expected to announce he will challenge Stiles in the primary for the District 24 seat.

Kenda is the CEO of HireAbility, a Londonderry-based company.

In 2012, he flirted with the idea of running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, but did not throw his hat in the ring and eventually endorsed the Republican nominee, Ovide Lamontagne.

Rep. Chris Mums, D-Hampton, will seek the Democratic nomination.


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Music in the Air: The sound of bagpipes can be heard several times a year before lawmakers begin their work for the day, but this week, cello and flute music will greet members of the House and Senate.

Cellist Matt Laughlin and Flutist Jennifer Yeaton-Parris will perform before the House session Wednesday and Senate session Thursday.

Members of New Hampshire Citizens for the Arts will greet lawmakers and give them "thank you" cards illustrated by students from Rundlett Middle School in Concord.

"It was a long, cold winter, and state legislators have been hard at work drafting, debating and passing bills that address some of the state's toughest issues. Now that it is spring and the Legislature is winding up its work for this biennium, it is a great time to thank them for their dedication and service," said Jamie Saucier, NH Citizens for the Arts co-chair. "What better way to say thank you than by celebrating with beautiful music and lovely art created by young people."

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