NH House rejects latest effort to allow gambling
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — In line with decades of opposition to casinos, the House turned aside lobbying by the governor and arguments that New Hampshire should compete with Massachusetts for gambling dollars to vote down yet another casino bill Wednesday.
After two hours of debate, the House voted 199-164 to kill a Senate bill that would allow 5,000 video slot machines and 150 table games at one facility. Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan had lobbied heavily for its passage, and supporters said New Hampshire needed money for higher education, highways and other programs.
New Hampshire has no personal income or general sales tax and many felt gambling was the best remaining way to raise money without a tax.
But opponents argued a casino wasn't worth the possibility of more gambling addicts and a tarnished image of a state that caters to families and tourists.
Hassan had included $80 million from a casino licensing fee in her budget, but passage of a gambling bill seemed a long shot until recent weeks when the vote appeared to tighten. She did win over a majority of Democrats, but 107 Republicans and 92 Democrats teamed up to kill the bill.
Hassan said she was disappointed in the outcome and criticized the House for not debating any of as many as 20 possible amendments before voting it down. She said putting together a budget will be harder without the gambling money.
"The path will be more difficult, but the people of New Hampshire expect us to do difficult things," she said in a statement.
Senate President Peter Bragdon, a Milford Republican, said the Senate was putting together its budget without assuming any gambling money. He said the House vote means the issue won't resurface in budget negotiations next month.
The casino bill had allocated most of the state's profits to highway improvements, higher education and economic development in the northern part of the state.
It is now up to each representative who voted against the bill "to tell us exactly how he or she intends to find the new, non-tax revenues we need to create jobs, fix our infrastructure and help the North Country," three bill sponsors, Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Morse, Sen. Lou D'Allesandro and Sen. Jim Rausch, said in a statement. "The Senate has made it clear new taxes are totally unacceptable."
The House had never approved a video slots bill and gambling supporters always said they had an uphill fight in the chamber even with Hassan's lobbying for the bill.
Senate Republican leaders added pressure on the House by saying they would craft a budget that spent less than the House's proposal rather than accept some of the House's budget assumptions.
Both agree on a scheduled 10-cent increase in the tobacco tax, but the Senate is expected to kill a House bill adding another 20-cent increase to the tax. Senators are building their budget based on $62 million less from state taxes than the House and $107 million less in hospital taxes used to support hospital aid, among other spending.
Both sides agree it would be unlikely the state would get any revenue from gambling in the next two years besides the gambling license fee. The state would have had to write rules to regulate a casino, put applicants through criminal background checks and pick a winner who then would build the casino. That could take two years with revenue estimates ranging from little after considering social costs to $130 million annually.
The special House panel assigned to research the casino bill listened to presentations on 17 amendments but did not vote on any.
Some representatives argued Wednesday the amendments deserved a hearing by the House, but others said the real issue was whether to allow casino gambling in New Hampshire.
Rep. Frank Sapareto, a Derry Republican, said a casino was the only way to raise money that didn't come from taxes.
"Our constituents don't want an income tax. They don't want a sales tax," he said.
Rep. Gary Richardson, D-Hopkinton, disagreed.
"This is a tax bill," he said. "It is a tax on gambling. The industry may be inviting that tax because they want to get something out of it. They want a large profit."
Rep. David Campbell, a Nashua Democrat, argued New Hampshire would effectively be giving away its citizens' gambling in three casinos being licensed in Massachusetts if it didn't approve its own facility.
"There is no wall between New Hampshire and Massachusetts. If we do nothing today we will be constructing a giant funnel instead of a casino funneling billions of dollars to Massachusetts," said Campbell.
But opponents argued New Hampshire would be creating a monopoly with most of the money flowing to an out-of-state casino owner.
"In the bill before us today, the state only gets 30 percent (of the profit). No less than 70 percent would go to an out-of -state company that has spent endless time and money to convince us this is a bargain," said Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican.
Vaillancourt called the state's take "a mere pittance."