Reps, Governor control future of expanded gambling
|Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Democrat of Manchester who is the prime sponsor of SB 489, spoke forcefully on Thursday at a construction trades rally in support for expanded gaming in the Granite State at a pre-Senate Finance Committee hearing in the State House in Concord. Rep. Bill co-sponsor Paul Ingersoll, a Democrat of Berlin, stood in support and later testified that SB 489 should be thought of as a jobs bill. Joe Casey, president of N. H. Building Trades, stands in the doorway behind Sen. D’Allesandro. (Photo by Edith Tucker) (click for larger version)|
March 10, 2010CONCORD — A rally in front of the State House on Thursday morning was followed by so many Granite State residents and lobbyists trying to squeeze into Room 100 — the original quarters of the state Supreme Court — that the Finance Committee hearing on Senate Bill 486 had to be moved to the far larger Representatives Hall.
The size of the crowd produced a sense of momentum in this year's effort to expand gambling operations.
SB 489 would legalize video slot machines (VSMs) — a.k.a. "slots" — and, for an additional fee, table games at six locations in New Hampshire, with the two biggest on the Massachusetts border and two sites in the North Country.
An amendment was introduced that morning by the bill's prime sponsor, Senate Finance Chairman Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, a Democrat of Manchester, in close collaboration with Sen. Kathy Sgambati, a Democrat of Tilton, that calls for using the first $50 million it raises to restore pending cuts to social service programs in the state Department of Health and Human Services. This would be a one-time allocation from up-front application and licensing fees that could total nearly $161 million.
Sen. Sgambati explained that this initiative was the only solution that she could come up with to mitigate the kind of cuts that the state's budget shortfall would otherwise require.
"I know there are people who are uncomfortable with using gaming as a way to restore services," Sen. Sgambati testified. "But I have to tell you that I am personally more uncomfortable with putting kids on a Healthy Kids waiting list, so that an infant can't have their ear infection treated. And I'm not comfortable with a mother giving up her job because she can't afford the increase in childcare rates. These people are members of our community, and we have an obligation to respond."
SB 486 would allow for the construction of one golfing resort hotel and convention center near the border in Hudson, as well as slot machines at three racetracks, in addition to two casino sites in the North Country, likely Lincoln in Grafton County and Berlin in Coös County.
The bill allows a total of 17,000 slots, plus table games for an additional licensing fee.
Voters in cities and towns would have to have a ballot vote on whether or not to allow the operation of video lottery machines within their boundaries.
A similar bill, House Bill 593 was defeated, 295 to 72, a year ago on the same date, reminded state Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Republican of Manchester, in his Thursday morning testimony.
Proponents estimate that with expanded gaming the state would take in revenues of about $275 million dollars a year and create 6,500 permanent jobs, including managerial, accounting, front line, and maintenance positions, and some 3,600 construction jobs over five to six years in all the trades.
"Expanded gaming would create thousands of construction jobs that we need, none of which would be government funded — all would bring private money into the state," said Joe Casey, president of N. H. Building Trades, while waiting for the pre-hearing rally to begin. About 10 percent of union members are women, and 90 percent men. "Unemployment in the construction trades is running about 25 percent," he said.
Many unemployed workers and their families wore orange T-shirts emblazoned with the words: "Jobs Now —Expand Gaming Now."
Sen. D'Allesandro emphasized that the bill is directed at economic recovery and job creation at a time when the state is home to 50,000 people without jobs. "Private investment could create a significant number of jobs," he testified. "We cannot tax our way out of a recession."
Rep. Paul Ingersoll, a Democrat of Berlin, testified that SB 489, of which he along with Sen. John Gallus, a Republican of Berlin is a co-sponsor, should be thought of as a much-needed jobs bill. Rep. Lyle "Rusty" Bulis, a Republican of Littleton, and Rep. Edmond Gionet, a Republican of Lincoln, waited patiently for their turn to testify in favor of the bill. In the interest of hearing the testimony of paid consultants for gambling interests, Sen. D'Allesandro waived the usual protocol and did not allow legislators to go to the microphone before others testified.
Attorney General Michael Delaney continued what he said was a 34-year tradition of Granite State attorneys general opposing expanded gambling, but was also "guided by my own experience" prosecuting criminal cases."
He acknowledged that legislators are facing "a daunting task" in finding ways to respond "to the worst national economic recession since the 1930s." Nonetheless, AG Delaney firmly stated, "As the chief law enforcement officer of the State, I do not believe that the expansion of legalized gambling is the right answer or the right direction. I urge you not to endorse it. It will negatively impact our public safety and New Hampshire's quality of life. In any economic climate, the societal costs of expanding gambling outweigh the arguments in favor of its expansion."
Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, urged the Senate Finance Committee to preserve "our state's precious crown jewel: our safe, healthy, wholesome and family-friendly social environment and image."
Officials of New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon said that since they represent a business that already has invested heavily in the state improving an existing racetrack facility, they should be given an opportunity to invest in expanded gambling.
In the end, however, if history repeats itself as expected, the bill will pass in the Senate, leaving state representatives to determine the fate of SB 489. Although several House members have changed their minds and plan to vote "yes" this year, it would take a major shift to put a passed bill on the governor's desk. Gov. John Lynch is reported to have indicated a reluctance to see expanded gambling come to the Granite State.