House Kills Senate Casino Bill, May See Strained Relations

May 23, 2013

The democratically-controlled NH House voted yesterday to kill a bill authorizing a casino with as many as 5000 slot machines and 150 table games. The vote is blow to Governor Maggie Hassan, who lobbied hard for the bill.  As NHPR’s Josh Rogers reports, the 199-164 vote was consistent with the house’s longstanding opposition to casino gambling, but may strain its relations with the state Senate, which had backed the plan by a supermajority.

By the time the House vote came, members had been plied with free food by Governor Hassan, and heard 2 hours worth of mostly familiar arguments. Critics like Democrat Patricia Lovejoy of Stratham, said if one casino were allowed, more would inevitably follow.

“It will never remain as just one casino. No state has just one casino."

Backers, like republican Frank Sapareto of Derry argued that NH needs money and a casino is the most politically palatable way to generate it.

“N.H. raises its money from booze, butts, and bets.”

Other supporters said a casino would create scores of jobs. Republican Gary Azarian represents Salem.

“4000 initial jobs, 2000 jobs to construct it; 2000 to 2200 jobs to organize and staff it.”  

Democrat David Campbell, meanwhile, warned against inaction in the face of casinos coming to Massachusetts.

“If N.H. does nothing, it is estimated that NH resident will gamble 100 million dollars a year in Massachusetts -- that means our residents will contribute 25 million dollars to the Massachusetts budget instead of the NH budget.”

But a recurrent question from opponents was who would benefit most from passing this bill? Republican Steve Valliancourt, who represents Manchester and supports gambling, said any close reading of the proposal makes clear that Millennium gaming would be the prime beneficiary. Millennium, which had a hand in drafting the bill, holds an option to buy Rockingham Park, and has proposed spending $600m on a casino there.

“Every step of the way this bill was designed to provide money for an out of state company and less money for the state of NH. That is no bargain. Well, maybe it’s a corrupt bargain, but it’s no bargain for the state of N.H., and that’s why I feel compelled to stand before you to say the only solution was to ITL this bill and start over."

Most in the house seemed to agree. After the house voted to kill the bill, it also voted against reconsidering it, meaning it cannot be revived by this legislature. That, said Sen Lou D’Allesandro, the proposal’s lead author, was akin to driving a stake through the bill’s heart:

“Obviously, I’m disappointed but the house now must come up with the monies needed to balance the budget, and the onus is on the House to do that.”

Governor Maggie Hassan, for her part, said she will continue to work towards a budget that reflects her goals, but as she briefed reporters, Hassan didn’t hide her frustration.

“The N.H. House didn’t listen to the people of N.H., about the priorities they support and about the way of funding those priorities that they support.” 

Hassan had hoped to add $80m in casino license fees to the state the budget. By her reckoning, the casino would also net the state future revenue of $120m a year. House budget writers, declined to include such money in the house’s spending plan. And according to Finance committee chair Mary Jane Wallner of Concord,  House members do listen to the people, but that’s not the extent of their job.

“They also want to be sure that if they are going to be giving away a valuable asset of the state, it’s a very valuable asset that we have, being able to have a gaming license. You have to be very careful to make the best deal for the state you can. I think that’s how people voted today.”

GOP leaders of the state Senate say they don’t anticipate trying to add the casino to their state budget plan. But they do expect to kill all the handful of tax increases passed by the House. Two of those -- a 12 cent hike to the state gasoline tax and a 20 cent hike to the tobacco tax – are slated to be voted on later today.