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Are casino hopes coming to an end?

GARRY RAYNO
April 11. 2015 8:30PM


THE HOUSE Ways and Means Committee last week held an all-day hearing on Senate Bill 113, which would allow for two casinos while laying out the regulatory framework for expanded gambling.

It was, in the words of New York Yankees sage Yogi Berra, "déjà vu, all over again."

Little new ground was plowed in the five-plus hours of testimony as the two sides squared off once again, as they have nearly every year in the last dozen or so years the issue has been debated.

Most casino proponents believed the last two years were the best opportunity to approve casinos, with Gov. Maggie Hassan pushing for a destination facility and budget writers looking for money.

The House proved once again it is tough to hit the jackpot when it comes to casinos, although in one instance it failed by only one vote, the closest casinos have ever come to passing.

This year the Senate again approved casino gambling, SB 113, which establishes two casinos with a combined 240 table games and 5,000 video slot machines. The bill is sponsored by longtime casino proponents Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, and Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem.

Morse told the House committee that casinos would prevent the state from hemorrhaging $50 million in rooms and meals money into Massachusetts and would provide the "wants above the needs" addressed in the two-year budget proposal that Senate Finance is crafting.

Despite Morse's pleas, the Ways and Means Committee is more likely to follow its own tradition of recommending killing the bill.

Some in House leadership initially wanted to retain the bill to separate it from the budget and to hold it for next year in case state finances blow up quickly under the new budget plan.

But now it appears leadership will let the bill run its course, and House Ways and Means will hold a working session Tuesday.

Some people whose testimony was cut short at last week's public hearing will be able to offer additional information.

Unlike past casino bills, there has been little talk about changing the bill to try to garner a few more votes by adding more casinos, changing the state's cut or uping revenue sharing with cities and towns.

The opponents and the proponents are gearing up for a full-court press on House members.

Anti-gaming groups believe this is their opportunity to finally put a stake in the heart of casino gambling in the Granite State. Once casinos begin operating in Massachusetts, it will be nearly impossible to sell expanded gambling here, the thinking goes.

The proponents believe this year and next year will be the last ditch efforts to have something in New Hampshire before the Massachusetts gaming parlors open for business in billion dollar facilities.

Hassan has been quiet on the issue, although she does say she continues to support one high-end, highly-regulated destination casino along the southern border.

The next few weeks will be interesting and may be the last we hear of casino gambling in New Hampshire for a while.

Clean power

The Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan - done through federal rules - will require power plants to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

The rules are expected to be finalized this summer and require states to develop their own solutions to reduce emissions, and if they don't, the EPA can impose its own plan.

New U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last month wrote a letter to the 50 governors through the National Governor's Association telling them to ignore the federal directive.

"The proposed plan is already on shaky legal grounds, will be extremely burdensome and costly, and will not seriously address the global environmental concerns that are frequently raised to justify it," McConnell wrote to the association. "Moreover, declining to go along with the administration's legally dubious plan will give the other two branches of government time to address the proposal and will not put your state at risk in the interim."

Hassan's press secretary William Hinkle said the governor wrote a response to McConnell's letter.

Dated Friday, the governor says she disagrees with his position and would like states in the Midwest and Kentucky to reduce coal-plant emissions that impact the air quality and climate in New Hampshire.

"In New Hampshire and throughout the Northeast, we have actively worked to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions," Hassan writes, citing the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. "Mass-based, market-based programs like RGGI are cost-effective, proven methods of reducing dangerous emissions and our collective regional efforts to combat climate change would be further strengthened by other states and regions joining similar programs."

She closes by urging McConnell to reconsider his position on the EPA's Clean Power Plan.

Several environmental groups and a former congressman say McConnell should not be exporting Washington grid-lock beyond the nation's capital into the state.

"Granite Staters want action on climate change and a majority support the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants," said N.H. Sierra Club Chapter Director Catherine Corkery. "With help from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and state policies supporting energy efficiency and renewable energy, the state is already well positioned to comply with the Clean Power Plan and will continue to enjoy the public health, economic, and environmental benefits."

Corkery will be joined by former U.S. Rep. Dick Swett of Bow and Roger Stevenson of the Union of Concerned Scientists at the 10 a.m. event.

Balsams bill

The Senate recently passed Senate Bill 30, which supporters say would allow the Balsams redevelopment project to go forward with the state guaranteeing some of the money.

The bill was supposed to have a public hearing Tuesday before the House Municipal and County Government Committee but the hearing was cancelled.

A new amendment has been developed to deal with some of the problems of the Senate passed proposal, which allows Coos County to act as the taxing agent for Dixville, an unincorporated place with no taxing authority.

The prime sponsor of SB 30, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn of Dalton, said Morse has been working with the stake holders, and the amendment addresses some of the concerns and issues about managing the state's risk.

Woodburn said the amendment will allow an unincorporated place to enter into the Business Finance Authority process that awards state guarantees for loans or bonds.

The amendment is also expected to cap the state's exposure to $20 million instead of the $28 million developer Les Otten originally sought.

Woodburn said the new amendment, which will have a public hearing before the House Finance Committee at some point, is agreeable to Otten and other key stakeholders.

The House members from Coos County are expected to propose the amendment.

The Balsams, one of the last of the North Country's grand hotels, closed five years ago, putting hundreds of people out of work.

The facility, which includes a ski area as well as two golf courses plus the hotel and restaurants, has been home to the first voting for presidential candidates in both the state's First-in-the-Nation Presidential Primary and in general elections

Hassan backs the project that would turn the grand hotel into a year-round destination resort with an expanded ski area and other amenities including a new hotel and conference center and infrastructure.

Presidential round table

The House Business Caucus and Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce will host business roundtables with presidential candidates from both parties beginning April 28.

"We want to provide an opportunity for employers and legislators to learn more about the candidates' specific ideas for improving the business climate and economy," said caucus founder and chair Rep. Laurie Sanborn, R-Bedford.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina will be the first candidate to address the groups. The roundtable will begin a noon April 28 in the Barley House Restaurant.

For more information or to RSVP, contact Sanborn at RepSanborn@gmail.com. The event is free.

Blinded by light

A controversial bill to allow major electric utilities to own solar power generating facilities is expected to die a quiet death this week in the House.

House Bill 117 would allow utilities to invest in small power generation - less than 6 megawatts - such as solar panels or using what are called distributive energy resources.

Proponents of the measure say allowing the utilities to invest in solar generation will smooth peak power costs, but opponents say it is a way for the large utilities to buy up the solar systems and mothball them.

The House Science, Technology and Energy Committee voted 18-2 to kill the bill, which has already passed the Senate. The House votes on the bill Wednesday.

The committee said the bill will allow utilities to own generating facilities after an agreement has been reached with Eversource Energy (formerly Public Service of New Hampshire) to sell its generating plants as other utilities did 15 years ago when the industry was deregulated.

"After years of discussion we are in the final stages of completing divestiture whereby power distribution, companies will be prohibited from owning and operating generation facilities," writes Rep. Herbert Vadney, R-Meredith. "SB117 would reverse that for solar power and make it much easier for power supply traders to own generation facilities, a position which flies in the face of divestiture."

grayno@unionleader.com


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