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North Country leaders betting on gambling bill

October 29, 2009
By DUNCAN MCKEE/Special to The Courier

LINCOLN—State senators and legislators, including a strong front from the North Country, are planning to once again propose legislation to expand gambling in New Hampshire, bolstering the state's economy, and they have their eyes on the North Country.

At a public forum held at the Lincoln Town Hall last Thursday, State Senators Lou D'Allesandro and John Gallus joined together with Representatives Edmond Gionet and Paul Ingersol to present the proposed legislation to the public.

D'Allesandro has been a familiar face in New Hampshire government for many years. He is chairman of the Finance Committee, vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, vice chairman of the Rules and Enrolled Bills Committee and a member of the Capital Budget Committee.

He spoke at length on the background of the legislation, which reaches back over 11 years. The proposal has been heard several times, each time being defeated by a narrower margin.

"The perception at that time," D'Allesandro said, "Was that with the permitting of gambling in New Hampshire, the state would be $2.5 billion richer."

According to a recent survey by the Lombardo Survey Group, 48 percent of New Hampshire residents are in favor of expanded gambling in the state, versus 20 percent in 1999.

This number contrasts with 11 percent currently favoring the introduction of a state sales tax, 11 percent supporting a state income tax, and seven percent supporting another increase in the gasoline tax.

Of those who support the increased gambling legislation, 62 percent want it now, with another 34 percent favoring waiting to enact it.

"The situation today is different," D'Allesandro said. "We have 60,000 New Hampshire residents out of work, and there are irreplaceable jobs leaving the state. We need an economic recovery here."

The proposed bill is modeled on the Horse Racing Redevelopment Act, which restored the horse racing industry in Delaware.

Horse racing was reintroduced in the Granite State in 1933 and has, by all measures, been a successful and healthy source of revenue.

"The Federal government has already poured $1.9 billion into the state from the American Recovery Act," Gallus added. "That money, which was supposed to create new jobs has created a total of zero new jobs. By 2011, there will be no more money coming from the Feds."

Touching on the hard economic situation that many people are facing now, Gallus, along with D'Allesandro and the others, think the coming legislative year is the right time for the expansion of the gambling industry in New Hampshire.

"Most of us can hardly pay the property taxes now," Gallus told the group of about two-dozen people who had come out for the meeting. "The expansion of this industry would create between 4,000 and 6,000 new jobs right off the bat."

Gallus, a real-estate broker in Berlin, is a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, Finance Committee and serves as the Chairman of the Wildlife, Fish and Game Committee. His legislative priorities include education funding and finding ways to make government more accessible and responsive to the citizens of the state.

He described the economic downturn he has witnessed in Berlin, and other towns that had a timber or paper-based economy . . . an economy that has spiraled steadily downward over the past couple of decades, and shows no signs of recovery.

"This would be a generator of good, clean jobs for New Hampshire residents," Gallus continued, "Not just wait staff, bartenders, and the like, but accountants, directors, and business managers, white collar jobs."

Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Maine already have expanded gambling in place. Massachusetts is presently considering legislation to allow it. Vermont is the only New England state that is not considering it at this time, and the hope of D'Allesandro and the others, is that New Hampshire will enact it first, so as not to lose the revenue to the south.

"I'd never sponsor a piece of legislation that I didn't believe in," D'Allesandro said.

The legislation would impose a 49 percent tax on the facilities, with one percent of that being used to fund a new division within the state police to scrutinize the industry. A larger portion of the revenue would be divided equally and distributed to the county governments.

"This would just be one component in an economic recovery package for the state," D'Allesandro explained. "What we want this for is property tax relief, but it's not the be-all and end-all of the economic situation."

Littleton resident Bruce Hadlock addressed the horseracing industry and pointed out all the additional jobs that would be created by an expansion of that aspect of gaming, such as grooms, veterinary personnel, and the need for agricultural products.

"I want to see the most profitable thing for the state," Hadlock said, "But, I think it still needs a lot of tweaking."

Discussion turned to the potential of casino gambling coming to the state.

"I think that many of the gaming venues have overbuilt themselves," D'Allesandro said, blaming it on what he referred to as "the greed factor."

"We as legislators have to prevent that," he said.

First and foremost, the senator explained, the individual communities would make the decision to allow the facility within its borders.

Secondly, the state would limit the number of licenses issued, and the price tags on the licenses would add significantly to state coffers, as well.

"A facility like Rockingham Park would pay a $50 million fee for its license," D'Allesandro said, "That would be cash up front."

Greyhound tracks would be charged $20 million for their licenses, and in order to attract the venues to the North Country, the fees would be cut in half," "So that we can get this economic engine going," D'Allesandro said.

Backers of the legislation believe that the reconstruction process of the state's gaming framework would easily generate $750 million, and would boost the need for workers in the construction trades for at least two years.

In recent years, with the collapse of the paper and timber industries in the North Country, Gallus has spearheaded a group of North Country leaders who want to bring a gambling facility to the Berlin area.

"We aren't looking for a slot palace," Gallus said, "What we want is more of a destination type facility."

Gionet said that a recent Massachusetts study on the issue showed that expanded gaming would work in New Hampshire, and even named the Lincoln, New Hampshire area as a potential threat to Massachusetts gaming, should Lincoln ever have such a facility.

The group is planning to hold more of these meetings in coming weeks.

"We are planning to go around the state, holding these meetings, so that everyone can take part in the discussions," D'Allesandro said. "We need to get out and talk to people, and get the message out in an informal way."

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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