Bipartisan House Group Pushes for N.H. Casino

Concord — A bipartisan group of more than 100 representatives — more than half the number needed for bills to pass the House — publicly swung their weight behind a one-casino gambling bill Tuesday in an attempt to demonstrate early momentum for the proposal.

The bill is the work of the Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority, led by Rep. Richard Ames, D-Jaffrey, created by Gov. Maggie Hassan last year and the bill that has her support. It goes before the House Ways and Means Committee tomorrow morning at 9.

Of the 108 lawmakers who have already publicly expressed support (25 Republicans and 83 Democrats), about half showed up at a news conference Tuesday to highlight pieces of the bill written in response to criticisms of last year’s casino bill and trumpet the “grassroots” nature of the coalition they’ve formed. Rep. Katherine Rogers, D-Concord, who organized the news conference, said this type of early bipartisan support for a bill as written is unique.

“We have momentum because we listened,” she said. “We heard the concerns of House members last spring who said we didn’t have the right regulatory framework.”

Supporters of the bill, called House Bill 1633, said they believe it addresses concerns raised by last year’s legislation, ranging from the level of regulation to the state’s handling of problem gambling. The bill would allow a single casino to be awarded to a licensee through competitive bidding that is subject to strict regulations. It would also set money aside for research and treatment of problem gambling and establish a New Hampshire Gaming Commission, which would oversee the state lottery, racing and charitable gambling and the new gambling control division.

Rep. Jeremy Dobson, D-Manchester, who opposed last year’s casino bill, spoke in favor of the authority’s bill Tuesday. He changed his mind primarily because the bill has comprehensive regulations that previous bills lacked, he said.

“There are major improvements that will make sure expanded gambling will be a good deal for the citizens of New Hampshire,” he said.

But Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, who strongly opposes expanded gambling, said in an interview that even with Tuesday’s news conference, he’s not seeing an overall change in support for expanded gambling. The authority’s bill still fails to address concerns that opponents of gambling have stated for years, he said. In today’s hearing, he’ll be looking for advocates of the bill to explain why it’s significantly better than previous attempts at casino bills.

The only difference in the rollout of this bill is that it’s being pushed by lawmakers rather than lobbyists, he said.

To Rogers, who led the news conference, that’s a significant change. She and a group of fellow Democrats have started what they’re calling the “Fair Deal Caucus,” which is working to gather support for gambling at a “grassroots” level, she said.

Democrats who support gambling decided “that the way to get the Legislature behind a bill was to do it the old-fashioned grassroots way, to talk one-on-one, to sit down with members that we work with every day, our seatmates or people on our committee and say, ‘Okay, what are your concerns?’ ” Rogers said.

Another difference this time is that more than 100 people are committing to supporting the same bill as it’s written, Rogers said.

“I can tell you from my experience last year ... it was everybody going, ‘Well, I could support this, but could you change that?’ ” she said.

Ames, who led the oversight authority, acknowledged the high level of support yesterday, but reminded fellow lawmakers that they still have much to do in their effort to see casino gambling pass the House. Bills need support of a simple majority of lawmakers present during the vote to pass the 400-member House, meaning the bill still needs to pick up close to double the support it has now. Last year, the House voted, 199-164, to kill a casino bill from the Senate.

“It’s really a remarkable achievement to start off with such support, but I think we all have to bear in mind that we have to end with more support, so we’ve got work ahead of us,” Ames said.