N.H. Casino Vote Likely This Week

Claremont — After a narrowly divided House panel voted against a proposed casino bill last week, Gov. Maggie Hassan called on lawmakers to consider what their constituents want before the entire House takes up the measure, perhaps as soon as Wednesday.

The proposal would allow a single casino to be built with up to 5,000 slot machines and 150 table games.

“ Listen to the people we represent, thoughtfully consider the legislation and proposed changes, and vote in favor of moving forward with our own plan to build a stronger, more innovative New Hampshire,” said Hassan.

While legislators have described an overwhelming lobbying campaign from special interest groups, Granite Staters on the streets of Claremont were on the whole lukewarm about the idea, often taking a “Why not?” attitude to the question of whether New Hampshire should have its own casino, which could generate millions of dollars in revenue for the state, including an $80 million licensing fee. Opponents have said the social costs would outweigh benefits, especially as Massachusetts moves ahead with plans for multiple casinos of its own, potentially limiting the market share for a New Hampshire offering.

Steve Roland, a Plainfield resident who has lived in New Hampshire for 45 years, said that he generally favors Hassan, a first-term Democrat, as a governor, but described her championing of the casino proposal as a “mistake.

“I think the last thing New Hampshire needs to generate revenue is gambling, which I think attracts perhaps an undesirable bunch of people to the state and also preys on people who aren’t thoughtful enough about what to do with their money,” Roland said last week.

For Roland, the debate over the pros and cons of a casino would be unnecessary if lawmakers agreed to pursue a “reasonable” broad-based income tax.

“I think an income tax would be great, and less (tax) on property,” he said.

Roland said that casino gambling was nothing more than a “get rich quick” scheme, “just like the lottery,” which he said he has never played in his life.

Claremont resident Stanley Wright said legalizing casino gambling is “a chance you’ve got to take.”

“People are happy to do it,” said Wright. “Nobody’s twisting their arms to go make them do it. They’re doing it on their own free will.”

Wright said that he loves to gamble and that having an in-state casino would b a “great thing.

“It would bring revenue into the state, and God knows we need it,” he said.

Brenda Hannah, who owns the Simply Comfort, a restaurant specializing in Southern cuisine in downtown Claremont, described herself as “all for it.”

For Hannah, the bottom line was the potential to generate revenue for the state’s highways and higher education . She said that opposing casino gambling on moral grounds was a slippery slope.

“If someone wants to do it, then they’re going to do it,” she said. “Is it a temptation for somebody? Yeah, but you can’t supervise what other people do.”

Hannah added, “If they’re going to do it, why not let the state make money? Why make Connecticut rich?”

Connecticut already has two casinos. Massachusetts is evaluating bids for three casinos to be built is different parts of the state. Maine has two casino, with the second opening just last summer.

Woodstock. resident Steve Leninski said he would definitely patronize a New Hamsphire-based casino.

“You know how much money leaves the community?” Leninski said. “People are going to gamble no matter what.”

Leninski qualified his support by saying that there should be a mandatory course for high school seniors in New Hampshire contrasting the likelihoods of winning money at a casino.

Legalizing casino gambling in New Hampshire has been proposed many times in the past, and it traditionally has been the House where the proposals have been unable to overcome opposition. As it has in the past, the state Senate easily approved the casino proposal in March.

State Rep. Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said that there has been an unprecedented amount of lobbying around the issue, and said the process of debating the casino has been “fairly nerve-wracking.”

“I have gotten an invitation every two to three days from the gambling lobby to join them,” said Almy, a longtime casino opponent , adding that she had no plans to accept anytime soon.

Almy said that aside from signs of support in the Claremont area, most Upper Valley residents that she has been in contact with oppose the casino. In addition, she said, the newly elected state representatives in Grafton County appear to be “mostly against it.

“But I don’t know what intensive lobbying does, and I don’t know about the new (lawmakers) across the state,” said Almy.

Asked about “Why not?” stance many in Claremont had toward the casino, Almy made her concerns clear.

“Because slot machines are the most addictive form of gambling we have,” she said.

Almy also mentioned the doubts she has about the revenue projections that have been presented to lawmakers, but its clear the problem gambling is the chief concern for the longtime lawmaker.

People are much more likely to go to a casino when once is located within a 50-mile radius, Almy said, and while the most likely location for a New Hampshire casino — Rockingham Park in Salem, N.H. — is some 90 miles from the Upper Valley, it is still far closer than other potential or existing New England casinos.

“A lot of people enjoy an outing at Foxwoods, but if you’ve got a Foxwoods right next to you, a lot of people are more likely to become addicted to that and be there every day, and become unable to control their habit,” she said. “It’s very clear from all of the research that this is an issue of distance to a casino.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213