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March 21. 2013 10:40AM

NH House tables bill that would allow 6 state-run slot machine parlors

CONCORD -- The House on Thursday tabled a pro-gambling bill, keeping its options open for potential future negotiations with the Senate, which passed its own casino bill last week.

The bill, set aside on a 170-160 vote, would allow for six state-run slot machine facilities and would bring in an estimated $178 million to $300 million a year. It was sponsored by Manchester Rep. Steve Vaillancourt and is based on a plan formerly put forward by Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas when he was in the state Senate.

The key vote was a "division" in which how each member vote is not made public, as opposed to a public roll call.

As a result, it will be impossible for key players on either side of the gambling issue to determine how each member voted.

Separately, the House overwhelmingly killed an allegedly "defective" bill calling for a casino along the Massachusetts border and another in the White Mountains. That vote was 249-65.

House consideration of what is considered the prime casino bill, Senate Bill 152, passed 16-8 by the Senate last week, is still weeks away.

House Bill 665, sponsored by Rep. Edmond Gionet, R-Lincoln, called for two "destination casinos," one in the "White Mountains," and another "in a county bordering Massachusetts."

Gionet said the bill was crafted to create jobs and address the state's deteriorating roads and bridges
.
He said since the House last rejected a gambling bill, the state now has a governor who backs gambling and the support of law enforcement unions.

"We did not have the looming competition that will soon materialize within an hour's drive of over half of our population," Gionet said.

He said legalized gambling in Massachusetts will cost the state $24 million in lottery, rooms and meals tax and business tax revenue.

With the Senate having passed a bill for a single casino in the southern part of the state, Gionet said the House should establish its own position.

Gambling opponents say casinos will hurt the existing tourism industry, but Gionet said two casinos "will draw more tourists."

Added Rep. Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston, "Tastes are changing. We have to change with the times and the competition.

Referring to the Senate bill, Weyler said, "We've always argued in this state that one casino is a monopoly."

"We've had gambling longer than almost every other state in the country" through the lottery, said Weyler.

But House Ways and Means Committee member Patricia Lovejoy, D-Stratham, said the Gionet bill contains "a number of significant flaws," including a lack of specificity on where the casinos would be located and a small minimum capital investment requirement of $10 million per casino, which she called "barley enough to build a slots barn."

She also cited "unreasonable" time lines for review by the Attorney General.

The tabled Vaillancourt bill would have had the state operate as many as six video slot machine parlors, four with 600 slot machines and two with 1,300 terminals.

Vaillancourt said that as some with a libertarian viewpoint, "I believe you ought to have an inherent right to waste your money however you choose.

"But as a libertarian, I will never vote for a monopoly for gambling," he said.
Vaillancourt said that having the state operate the facilities would decrease the possibility of corruption.

"All people touching the money would be state employees," he said.

The state would enter into partnership with private entities, which would receive a percentage of the gambling revenue and operate food and alcohol services at each facility.

The state's "take" would be 60 percent of the money wagered, which, Vaillancourt said, "is "more lucrative than the Senate bill" and "we as a state should not be in the business of making private businesses filthy rich."

But House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, said slot machine parlors in other states are generally "small sad places that cater mostly to the locals."

Senate Bill 152, which calls for $80 million in licensing application fees and a single casino with 5,000 slot machines and 150 table games, passed the state Senate last week and is now headed for review by the House, where proponents face a difficult battle.

Earlier this month, the House Ways and Means Committee voted to retain the two bills but the next day reversed course and voted to recommend killing them.

Retaining the bills would not have allowed the pro-gambling forces, including lobbyists for gambling interests, to take a "test vote" to see whom they need to persuade when Senate Bill 152 goes before the House.

Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 152, said the House decision to table the Vaillancourt bill is a good sign for his cause.

"I think it is getting closer" in the House, he said. "People are beginning to look at the issue in a much more objective manner.

"The 'anti' forces wouldn't be working as hard if they thought it didn't have a shot in the House."


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