N.H. House Rejects Casino
Lawmakers Scratch Bill Supported by Governor, State Senate
Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, lobbies legislators in Concord prior to debate on legislation that would establish a casino in the state. After more than two hours of debate, lawmakers voted to reject the proposal. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Rep. Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, talks with anti-casino lobbyist Henry Veilleux outside the House chambers in Concord during debate on SB 152 yesterday. Almy is chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee that recommended against the bill. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Rep. David Hess of Hooksett addresses the House of Representatives as the last speaker to give testimony on legislation that would have create a framework for casino gambling in the state. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Wearing a lapel sticker to show his support of the casino bill, Rep. Peter Ramsey of Manchester listens to announcements at the close of the legislative session in Concord. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Concord — Keeping with Granite State tradition, the Democratic-controlled House scrapped a casino gambling proposal yesterday, defying both the governor and the Senate’s budget writers.
Lawmakers voted 199-164 to reject the Senate proposal, which would have established a single casino with up to 5,000 video slots and 150 table games, with revenue generated going to highway improvements, higher education and economic development for the North Country.
In the Upper Valley, the vote was split more along county lines than party affiliation.
Grafton County state representatives in Lebanon, Hanover, Lyme, Enfield, Dorchester, Canaan and elsewhere across other parts of the county voted overwhelmingly against the casino, while Sullivan County lawmakers, including those from Plainfield, Cornish, Claremont and Charlestown, lined up behind the proposal.
In Grafton County, state Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, bucked the county trend and voted for the casino along with state Rep. Linda Lauer, D-Bath, who represents Orford and Piermont.
Long after the vote had concluded and lawmakers filed out of the House chamber, Ladd paused to reflect in a Statehouse hallway that had fallen nearly silent after several hours of frenzied last-minute lobbying.
With broad-based taxes such as an income or sales tax off the table, Ladd said, lawmakers should expect to face a shortfall of revenue to fund the services residents expect during the upcoming budgeting session.
“Putting it together, we don’t have the revenues that are meeting our needs,” said Ladd, who relayed that those he had spoken with in Haverhill were largely supportive of the casino proposal.
Jim Rubens, an Etna Republican and former state senator who heads the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, said the House defeat of the casino proposal was “very significant.
“In spite of the most intensive lobbying pressure ever, and in spite of the most intensive arm-twisting ever in the Legislature, it still goes down,” he said, citing the 35-vote gap as evidence that casino proponents had not gained much ground in their lobbying efforts compared with previous attempts.
Gov. Maggie Hassan, who included $80 million from the casino’s licensing fee in her budget framework for the next two years, said she was disappointed that the House voted against the casino and chose not to hear any of the as many as 20 amendments to the bill.
“I remain committed to working with the legislature to finalize a balanced budget that restores the priorities that the people of New Hampshire support: job creation, higher education, economic development, strengthening our mental health system and protecting the health and well-being of our communities,” said Hassan.
State Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover, was one of several Grafton County Democrats to go against the plans laid out by fellow Democrat Hassan.
After the vote, Nordgren echoed concerns by many in her party who said that this year’s casino proposal wasn’t properly vetted with state regulations.
“Even if a person were a supporter of gambling, it was a bad bill,” said Nordgren, who added that a casino slated for Springfield, Mass., has been held to much stricter standards in the ways it would be required to flow revenues back into the community.
Other arguments made by opponents of the casino included the social costs associated with gambling, the addictive nature of video-slot machines, and questionable revenue projections.
State Rep. Susan Almy, a Lebanon Democrat and chairwoman of the House Ways and Means committee, said last week that there were major flaws in the revenue estimates for the casino.
But Democrats in favor of the casino, such as Claremont state Rep. Ray Gagnon, said on the House floor after the vote yesterday that his party “just threw away a really major leveraging tool to use in negotiating the final budget.”
Before the vote, the Senate indicated that it was opposed to any added taxes to balance the budget, such as a gasoline tax or a cigarettes tax, and members of the upper chamber reiterated that point in a statement after the vote. The lack of revenue options, Gagnon said, means that lawmakers will be forced to cut funding for state mental health programs, child services, roads and bridges, and economic development.
“All of those needs are going to go unmet, because there will be no revenue,” said Gagnon. “So the end result could very possibly be a budget that looks more like a (former Republican House Speaker William O’Brien) budget, and I hope these people are aware of that. That’s what they have done.”
But while Nordgren said that such fears as those expressed by Gagnon have “been some of the mantra that’s out there,” she contended that not even the Republican Senate majority wants to be forced to make the same cuts felt in the last budgeting session and face a similar blow-back from voters in the next election.
“They’re going to have trouble cutting some of the things we put in,” said Nordgren, who estimated that the House and Senate would hash out a way to find the revenue needed to fund state services in a conference committee in the coming weeks.
Gagnon said that while casino proposals traditionally reach a stumbling block in the 400-member House, he was convinced this time would be different.
“All I can really think of is what will be the ramifications, and I find it somewhat troubling that we got snookered,” said Gagnon. “That’s how I feel. We got snookered.”
Gagnon said that Democrats made a mistake by trying to be “purists” in approaching budget negotiations.
“We want to be purists and we don’t feel that this is real revenue,” he said. “Well, what else is there going to be? There’s no other option.”
Ben Conarck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.