House Bill May Decide Fate of Casino in N.H.

Plan Gauges Impact of $80M From Expanded Gambling

Anyone wondering what the next state budget would look like without being propped up by $80 million in license fees from a casino is going to find out pretty shortly.

The House Finance Committee’s bold decision to craft this alternative, two-year, $11 billion spending plan could go a long way to determining whether the decades-long logjam over expanded gambling will finally be broken in the House of Representatives this spring.

“We’re still at an early stage, but this whole exercise could determine whether a casino is in or out,” said James Monahan, a lobbyist who represents mental health centers depending on their share of $28 million more in Gov. Maggie Hassan’s proposed budget.

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, is co-author of the fast-moving Senate bill (SB 152) to legalize gambling at one casino with up to 5,000 slot machines and 150 table games. He’s confident that House budget writers will find that their spending blueprint without the casino cash won’t appeal to rank-and-file House members.

“Let’s watch them try to do without the $80 million,” D’Allesandro said. “How will the University System fare? How about mental health? What about local aid? They would all have to take a big haircut.”

Hassan has been mum about whether she has a Plan B that bows to the history of casino bills crashing and burning in the House over the last 30 years.

House Finance Chairman Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, made it official last week with her formal instructions to division leaders to put together a spending plan without the $80 million in it.

“I have to start to look at where we haven’t got a position on gambling,” Wallner said. “To accept revenue of $80 million would really be a mistake, especially if it didn’t show up later.”

Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough, has to find $20 million heading the part of the budget that includes the departments of justice, resources and economic development, treasury and the secretary of state’s office, among others.

“The governor wisely funded a lot of very popular programs with that $80 million, and this will leave us short,” Leishman said. “I will support the governor’s gambling bill; I don’t have a problem with it.”

The cryptic comment from Wallner about her views, however, reveals the deep-seated cynicism among some casino supporters about the obstacle placed in front of them before the House.

Wallner is starting her 17th term and is widely considered one of the most fervent opponents of expanded gambling. The next ranking member on her committee, 13-term Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover, has voted likewise through the years, as has seven-term Rep. Bernie Benn, also D-Hanover.

“I doubt I will vote for it this time, but I will have to see,” Wallner said.

House Speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, has a similar voting history against expanded gambling in her 17 years at the Statehouse, but has stressed she’s remaining neutral and praised Hassan for the case she made with her budget.

House Republican Leader Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, praised Wallner’s decision.

“I agree with Rep. Wallner that including $80 million in gambling license fees is a mistake,” Chandler said. “Not only is it contingent on legislation that, in the past, has failed in the House dozens of times, there is also no guarantee that we would actually receive those fees in a timely manner, or even in this next budget period.”

Another breaking story thrown into the casino gambling watch in the House was the critical report about long-term revenue prospects from the respected New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies. The center served as the staff consultant to former Gov. John Lynch’s Gaming Commission, which spent nine months in 2009-10 exploring the industry.

The report concludes that Hassan’s $80 million license fee could come in during the two-year budget window, but cast more serious doubt on the casino as a big generator of state profits into the future.

The low tax rate for the casino, 30 percent, and discounts offsetting the developer’s capital investment would be seriously devalued by constructing two casinos in Massachusetts within an hour’s drive of the state, the study said. Social costs such as divorce, welfare, loss of productivity, and increased crime facing private business and government could overwhelm what net profit the state gets from the casino’s slots, it continued.

Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, has served on the center’s board, but as the casino co-author, he disputed the analysis.

The state Lottery Commission projects up to $120 million net profit for the state, more than twice the $51 million forecast from this report, Morse said.

“I agree with Governor Hassan in this area,” Morse said. “If anything, this report should serve as a signal to lawmakers that now is precisely the time to move forward with expanded gaming in order to reap the revenue benefits and establish a clientele before Massachusetts is able to get their operation off the ground.”

Granite State Coalition Chairman Jim Rubens said the study affirmed what his organization has said for years: that the casino market is saturated and about to get run over with the advent of Internet gambling that is now legal in three states.

“We’ve been saying all along that this is the worst revenue source to plan the future of your economy on,” Rubens said. “It’s an industry steeped in decline; kind of like hooking your fortunes to the buggy whip.”

Bradley said the study surely made for a bad PR week for casino advocates, but he thinks it will only be used to cement deeply held factions on both sides.

“I think those who want casinos will reject it out of hand; those against it will add this to their arsenal,” Bradley said.

Gambling has its advocates, and this spending battle could prompt like-minded budget writers such as Leishman and Rep. Daniel Eaton, D-Stoddard, to offer an amendment that restores the $80 million for programs with the license fee money.

Opponents such as Hess and Rubens are confident the new breed of House member they started lobbying right after the November election will join their camp.

“I was at House orientation passing out our information and I got a very positive vibe from the new members,” Hess said. “I am reasonably optimistic the House is not going to change course.”

But David Lang, president of the Professional Association of Fire Fighters, said organized labor is solidly onboard with a casino like never before, and its members have one-on-one skills finely tuned after defeating attempts to pass Right to Work.

“I think that’s the new paradigm; you’ve got members in unions across the board in government that have this experience working House members one at a time,” Lang said. “I think it can pay real big dividends.”

But even Millennium Gaming lobbyist Jim Demers typified most observers who remain cloudy-headed about the highly awaited outcome in the House.

“It’s hard to figure right now,” he said. “I sure know what I want the end game to be, but it’s still not a clear picture just yet.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashua Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).