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N.H. Senate Approves Bill For Casino

Measure Now Must Pass House Before Going to Gov. Hassan

Concord — A casino bill that Gov. Maggie Hassan needs for her proposed budget overwhelmingly passed the state Senate yesterday, thanks largely to Democrats who said turning down casino revenue would be immoral if that money could restore funding for education, roads and care for the mentally ill.

Sen. David Watters, a Dover Democrat who opposed expanded gambling during his two terms in the House, voted for the bill, which would allow one casino somewhere in the state. Watters acknowledged concerns that a casino comes with social costs but did so with a different perspective.

“What is the social cost of (underfunding) education?” Watters asked on the Senate floor. “What is the social cost of saying no to thousands of jobs? You say those aren’t good jobs? Tell that to the bricklayer. Tell that to the unemployed workers.”

The bill passed 16-8, with yes votes from nine Democrats and seven Republicans. It now heads to the House, where it faces a tougher test. House members have historically rejected expanded gambling, and neither the Republican nor the Democratic leadership has embraced this bill.

But Hassan, a Democrat, has given lawmakers a difficult choice, writing a budget that counts on $80 million from a casino license to boost support for higher education, road work, North Country economic development and social services over the next two years. Once the casino is open, the state would tax its net proceeds 14 percent to 30 percent, under the bill as it’s now written.

House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat who has voted against previous casino bills, said yesterday the Democratic caucus in the House is split on the bill headed over from the Senate. “I’m still weighing how I feel,” he said.

House Minority Leader Rep. Gene Chandler, a Bartlett Republican, said in a statement that his caucus remains concerned that Hassan’s budget relies on legalizing a casino.

“Many Republicans thought it was irresponsible for her to base our state’s fiscal health on something that is not even legal in the state,” Chandler said. “The House finance committee will be moving forward, creating a budget that does not count on expanded gaming revenue, as they should. Even if some sort of gaming proposal should pass, it’s highly unlikely that we would see any revenue in time for this budget cycle.”

Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, a Portsmouth Democrat, was the only senator to speak against the bill during yesterday’s debate. “Introducing casino gambling into the state is the wrong way to raise money to fund mental health, transportation and higher education,” she said.

Sen. John Reagan, a Deerfield Republican, joined Fuller Clark in voting against the bill.

After the vote, Reagan said he doesn’t believe a casino will deliver the money Hassan and the bill’s supporters predict. “No other state has seen the fulfillment of the revenues promised from casino gambling,” he said.

It was mostly Democrats who spoke for the bill yesterday.

“I support (the casino bill) and not because I am a supporter of gambling,” said Sen. Molly Kelly, a Keene Democrat. “But I rise as a strong proponent of the priorities that are reflected in the governor’s budget. They reflect my priorities for the people I represent.”

Kelly highlighted state cuts to higher education and community mental health care, saying the state for too long has incarcerated people with mental illness rather than treat them.

“I would ... argue that placing those with mental illness in our jails and prisons is immoral,” said Kelly. “I would go as far as to say it’s uncivilized.”

She said she’d consider another revenue source if she could. “There are no other options on the table,” she said. “Nor is there likely to be.”

Sen. Sylvia Larsen, a Concord Democrat, said she was “reluctantly” supporting the casino bill, although she has voted for expanded gambling in the past. She said the state already allows gambling — with its lottery and charity gaming.

Larsen also cited competition from casinos in Maine and those under way in Massachusetts.

The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies has said the state will lose $75 million in rooms and meals taxes and other revenue to those casinos.

“I say the moral question is the fact that our governor has written a budget that restores funding to education and takes care of our most vulnerable and (supports) transportation,” Larsen said. “What does it say about us morally if we do nothing.”

The casino bill would award a single casino license through a competitive bid and allow 150 table games and up to 5,000 slot machines.

Table game proceeds would be taxed at 14 percent. Slot machines would be taxed at 30 percent, with most of the money directed to road projects, higher education and economic development, some of it in the North Country.

There would also be money set aside to treat gambling addiction.

The winner of the bid would have to invest $425 million into the casino but that amount could include the license fee and any money spent buying land for a casino.

CORRECTION

This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The winner of a single casino license authorized in a bill that passed the New Hampshire Senate on Thursday would have to invest $425 million into the casino but that amount could include the license fee and any money spent buying land for the project. An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect figure.