NH House panel votes to kill casino bill

Special joint New Hampshire House panel votes against casino; House to vote next week

Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- A special House committee charged with researching gambling voted by the narrowest margin Wednesday against legalizing a casino in New Hampshire.

The House Ways and Means and Finance committees voted 23-22 to recommend that the full House kill a Senate bill that would allow up to 5,000 video slot machines and 150 table games. The House is scheduled to vote on the bill next week.

Before voting, the panel heard presentations on 17 amendments that would do everything from strengthen regulatory controls to making the license 20 years instead of 10 years and opening up the licensing to new applicants at that point. One proposed change would have allowed any business with a liquor license to have video slot machines. Some proposals would have changed the division of the profits. One would have increased the state's take.

But none were voted on by the committee before the vote to kill the bill was taken — to the frustration of bill supporters.

State Rep. Peter Leishman, a Peterborough Democrat and amendment sponsor, said voting without considering amendments to strengthen the bill was "patently unfair."

But opponents argued the bill was flawed.

"We are not there yet," said Ways and Means Chairwoman Susan Almy, D-Lebanon.

"If we keep saying it's not ready yet, it won't ever be ready," replied Rep. Katherine Rogers, D-Concord.

Even with the recommendation to kill the bill, supporters said they will take the fight to the House floor. Under House rules, supporters will have to defeat the motion to kill the bill before passage and amendments can be considered. The House has considered dozens of casino bills over the years but never passed one.

State Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat and the bill's prime sponsor, said he was disappointed with Wednesday's vote, but would not give up.

"The real game will be played on the House floor," he said.

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan has been lobbying hard for representatives to support the Senate bill. She included $80 million from a licensing fee in her budget, but the House budget passed last month to the Senate does not rely on gambling revenue. Senate Republican leaders say their version of the budget will spend less than the House's proposal rather than accept some of the House's budget assumptions, putting pressure on the House to approve a casino.

Both sides agree it would be unlikely the state would get any revenue from gambling in the next two years besides the gambling license fee.

"I am extremely encouraged by the closeness of today's committee vote," said Hassan. "As the bill moves to the floor, I believe the full House will give a more complete consideration to this legislation and the proposed bipartisan amendments that were not voted on today."

House Speaker Terie Norelli, a Porstmouth Democrat, said she could not predict next week's vote but said she believes it will be close.

The House panel weighed a number of possible changes to the Senate bill with 12 of the 22 supporters signing onto one proposed amendment which is expected to be offered next week if the House agrees to consider the bill.

Among its proposed changes, the amendment would strengthen the regulations, prohibit political contributions to state candidates and bar them from soliciting money from the casino operators, limit indoor entertainment venues to1,500 seats and require applicants to negotiate agreements with live entertainment centers that would be affected by a casino offering shows. Rather than sell 24 hours a day, seven days a week, they proposed making the casino stop selling drinks at 1 a.m., the same time charities must stop.

The Senate bill allocates most of the state's profits to highway improvements, higher education and economic development in the northern part of the state.

The House passed a bill that would phase in a 12 cent tax increase on gas and diesel to pay for highway improvements and also attached it to the budget package, which ensures it will be part of negotiations next month over the spending plan for the two years beginning July 1.

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