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Tony Bantis, right, looks on as Tim Lutke goes through the motions of dealing Texas Hold'em, a poker variant, during an afternoon training session at Granite State's Poker Room inside the Rockingham Park racetrack in Salem. (Union Leader file photo)

Luck runs out for casino bill in lopsided House vote


CONCORD — By a large margin — 223-141 — the House rejected a bill that would have established two casinos in the state.

The vote continues the House’s long-standing opposition to casino gambling and could signal the end of what has been an annual legislative debate.

Senate Bill 113 would have allowed one large casino and a smaller facility with a combined 240 table games and 5,000 slot machines. Supporters said it would provide up to $120 million in licensing fees for the next biennium and between $80 million to $130 million annually.

But opponents said the cost of casino gambling is too high for families and communities.

“There is no free money anywhere,” longtime casino opponent Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, said. “Any money that comes from a casino is money our fellow citizens have lost.”

But supporters argued the casinos would create about 4,000 jobs and retain money now being spent at out-of-state casinos. And they said the claims of irreparable harm are really much ado about nothing.

“Live free or die — that is our brand, that is our culture. That does not change because someone builds a casino,” said Rep. Ken Weyler, R-Kingston. “Where is the crime wave and the disasters we keep hearing about from the opposition?”

The bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, said he was shocked at the vote. The House failed to pass the bill on a 156-208 vote, before voting to kill it.

“I thought we would do much better,” D’Allesandro said, “with the public supportive and the states around us moving rapidly to capture the market.”

Massachusetts has approved two casino licenses for Everett and Springfield, and licensed a video slot machine facility.

New Hampshire will lose the private investment money, the additional revenue and people will continue to gamble out of state, D’Allesandro said.

During the more than two-hour debate, Rep. Patricia Lovejoy, D-Stratham, said the Northeast market was saturated with casinos.

“Do the ends justify the means and for 40 years the answer to that question has been ‘no,’” Lovejoy said. “It’s a bad idea that has only gotten worse.”

But others argued the state needs the money to provide critical services to its residents and that casinos would complement the state’s allure as an entertainment destination.

“Gaming goes back as far as humankind,” Rep. Jacalyn Cilley, D-Barrington, said. “It is here folks, and it is here to stay.”

The House defeated two attempts to expand gambling beyond the two casinos in SB 113 through a “free market” approach and voted down a plan to require a performance audit of the licensing process.

The bill had the slim approval — 11-10 — of the House Ways and Means Committee. Gov. Maggie Hassan said last week the market would not support a second casino, but by the end of the week she threw her support behind SB 113.

The Senate has consistently backed casino legislation, with D’Allesandro and Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, its biggest supporters. After Wednesday’s vote, D’Allesandro acknowledged any gambling proposal faces a steep uphill battle, but declined to say if he intends to introduce another casino bill next year.

grayno@unionleader.com