NH House tradition continues (by one vote): No casinos

By JOHN DiSTASO, News Editor

CONCORD – By a single vote, the New Hampshire House again rejected casino gambling  Wednesday, voting 173-172 to kill Senate-passed legislation that would have authorized two casino facilities.

After about two hours of debate, Deputy Speaker Naida Kaen, D-Lee, sitting in for Speaker Terie Norelli, who was out of the state, cast the deciding vote from the dais.

The vote will be reconsidered next Wednesday after Rep. Mario Ratzki, D-East Andover, who voted on the prevailing side, quickly filed for reconsideration. If the House refuses to reconsider, the bill – and the gambling issue –are likely dead for 2014.

The Senate bill would have authorized two casinos with a total between them of 5,000 slot machines and 240 table games. The bill was altered recently to distribute $25 million of the state’s “take” to cities and towns through a revenue sharing formula, ostensibly for property tax relief.

The state Lottery Commission estimated the bill, with two casinos, would provide about $168 million to $200 million for the state and about $480 million for the two casinos.

Gov. Maggie Hassan has strongly backed casino gambling but has limited her support to a single casino.

Central to the debate on the floor Wednesday was a recent Superior Court ruling striking down as unconstitutional the state’s Medicaid Enhancement Tax, used for about 20 years as a way to balance the budget.

The ruling is being appealed to the state Supreme Court. The tax was counted on to produce about $185 million, including about $72 million for the general fund and the rest for Medicaid providers and hospital reimbursements

Gambling opponents accused advocates of using the ruling to try to create panic where none was necessary.

Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, said proponents would have House members believe the MET ruling has caused “a crisis of some sort and we have to act to have additional revenue.

“We are not facing a crisis,” said Kurk. “We have a problem but the problem is solvable.”

But fellow Republican Rep. Kenneth Weyler of Kingston, who favors expanded gambling, said, “We have a problem and this bill can help that problem.

“Would you like an income or a sales tax?” asked Weyler, adding, “Those are the choices we’re looking at. This looks to me like the only game in town.”

Rep. Dan McGuire, R-Epsom, said it is a misnomer that by having two casinos, there would not be a monopoly.

He warned that the two casino operators would be “very large and powerful entities” that would most likely oppose any future effort by lawmakers to increase the number of gambling licensees.

He also noted that the bill is structured to allow for a large and small casino, which, he said, “is nothing like a free market.

But proponent Rep. Kenneth Gidge, D-Nashua, warned that if the bill is rejected, “our bond rating will go down” and it will cost the state more to borrow money.

“When you start looking at gambling, you don’t have to like it. You can even hate it,” Gidge said, but, “We’re losing a tax that we can’t put back.”

Rep. Gary Richardson, D-Hopkinton, countered, “We should not base our decision on whether to approve gambling on scare tactics.

“If we adopt gambling, there is no going back, my friends. We can’t revoke this bill. If we pass this bill, it is the law and there is no way we’re going to take it back after we accepted the money from the gambling industry.”

Fellow long-time gambling opponent Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, said the bill “leaves hundreds of millions of dollars on the table and for no good reason other than to fill the pockets of those who would run the casinos.”

Rather than set the licensing fees for $80 million and $40 million, Hess called for competitive bidding. He also said a higher percentage of the money wagered should go to the state.

Hess urged the lawmakers to say “enough is enough.”

House Finance Committee Chairman Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, also opposing the bill, ssaid, “This is not the time to panic and create more damage through unintended consequences. The proponents of casino gambling see the court ruling as justification to act now. But this would be the worst time to close our options.

She said discussions are underway involving the governor’s office, House and Senate, and hospitals “to find the best solution.

“That (MET) issue is being used to create panic and pitch casinos and expanded gambling as the only possible answer,” Wallner said. We need a reasoned, measured approach. This is just the latest way of creating panic and pushing casinos as the answer to all of our problems.”

Author: John DiStaso

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