CONCORD — A group of Republican representatives said casino gambling in New Hampshire is more critical than ever, in the wake of bleak revenue reports released the day after a casino bill fell one vote short of approval last Wednesday.
The measure, SB 366, comes up for reconsideration Wednesday, and gambling supporters say the timing has never been better.
“Last week’s vote shows the mind-set of the New Hampshire House has changed,” said Rep. Richard Hinch, R-Merrimack. “There is a growing will among members to get this done. I believe the conventional wisdom is shifting among my colleagues. This is no longer a question of if the House will support a gambling plan, but when a plan will pass and how we will get there.”
Gambling supporters say the bill is needed to deal with problems surrounding the state’s Medicaid Enhancement Tax and an April revenue report released on Thursday that shows the state is short $22 million for the month.
State Rep. Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, led a news conference on Monday morning with other Republican representatives serving on the Finance and Ways and Means committees, warning that the state will face a downgrade of its bond rating if it does not come up with answers to the revenue shortfalls.
“A downgrade is coming if we don’t make changes,” he said. A downgrade in bond rating would cost the state millions in additional borrowing costs.
Weyler warned that efforts are under way to expand the MET to all medical providers, not just hospitals, to address the Superior Court rulings overturning the hospital tax. The recent Medicaid Enhancement Tax ruling finding the tax unconstitutional puts an estimated $185 million of state revenue in jeopardy
“Senate Bill 366 provides non-tax revenue we can use to replace the revenues that are about to be gone forever when the MET tax is erased from our books,” Weyler said.
The House voted 173-172 on Wednesday to kill a Senate-passed bill that would authorize two casinos with 5,000 video slot machines and 240 table games between them. The measure calls for distributing $25 million of state revenues from the casinos to local communities to provide property tax relief.
Opponents of casino gambling argue that its revenue potential is overstated, that casino gambling will forever change the character of the state, that any benefits will be more than offset by social costs, and that entertainment venues like the Manchester’s Palace Theatre and the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord would be devastated.
Weyler said gambling supporters have done their best to address those concerns.
“Every time one concern is addressed, a new concern arises,” he said. “The regulatory framework is strict and what lawmakers demanded; the number of licenses and (revenue split) reflects a compromise of many different opinions; and the restoration of revenue-sharing is a re-commitment to our constituents.”
The bill was also amended to appease the concerns of Manchester officials over the impact on the Verizon Wireless arena.
Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas said on Monday he supports the bill, as long as it retains the amendment restricting the size of any entertainment venue at the facility to no more than 1,500 seats. “My only concern is that the Verizon is protected,” Gatsas said.
There have been recent reports that the Verizon-based Manchester Monarchs, an AHL affiliate whose parent team is Los Angeles, could be considering a move to the West Coast.
In a letter to Gatsas and the aldermen in February, arena General Manager Tim Bechert said entertainment venues like the Verizon, which has 10,000 seats, are ill-equipped to compete with casinos for major acts.
“The entertainment market has virtually disappeared for non-casino based venues located in proximity to casinos, with big-name acts committing to play in gaming facilities for much smaller crowds and much larger pay days,” he wrote.
Union Leader Staff Writer Ted Siefer contributed to this report.