Senators and audience members all smiled when Senator Lou D’Allesandro (Manchester) began his testimony to introduce his casino gaming bill saying he has been working on it for 14 years. That’s a long time.
And there should be no doubt about how the five member Ways and Means Committee will vote on Senate Bill 152 as two other committee members are joining Senator D’Allesandro as co-sponsors of his bill. A fourth committee member is also pledged to support the bill.
Every bill introduced must have a public hearing even if the outcome of the committee’s vote is not in doubt. Over a three hour period last Tuesday, in a packed committee hearing room with plenty of media on hand, witness after witness came forward to explain why they supported or did not support expanded gambling in New Hampshire. "Expanded gambling" is shorthand for one or more casinos that would have slot machines, these days called video lottery terminals, and table games.
Serious gambling bills, like Senator D’Allesandro’s, always attract a lot of attention. This year the outcome of the gambling bill is more important as Governor Maggie Hassan has put $80 million into her two year budget proposal from a one-time license fee. The fee would be paid by the successful bidder to build and operate the casino allowed by SB 152.
Critics of the casino proposal suggest this is the first time a governor has put money into his or her budget from a casino license fee. They believe it is very risky to depend on that money to balance the upcoming two-year budget. The Senate will pass the D’Allesandro bill but the House has never supported a major gambling expansion bill. The opposition to SB 152 is bi-partisan and prepared for the battle when the bill moves to the House next month.
If the casino bill fails in the House, Governor Hassan will suffer a big defeat and the legislature will struggle to find cuts in the Governor’s budget to fill the $80 million gap. Many, including this writer, believe the revenue should not have been included in the Governor’s budget given the House’s history of killing gaming bills.
House members will feel the pressure along these lines: if you do not pass the casino bill, social service programs will have to be cut and there will be no new spending on roads and bridges and higher education tied to gambling.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee will meet on Mar. 5 to vote on SB 152. The vote in favor will be 4 to 1. It will likely go the Senate floor on Mar. 14. Once passed, we will all be watching what the House does. Except for votes on the budget in early April, the House vote on SB 152 could be their most significant one this year.
Except for the Governor’s active support and the money in her budget from gambling, the advocates push the same points and the opponents their same arguments as they have for more than a decade. Everyone will get their say one more time and this time the outcome could be decisive. If opponents lose, a casino will be on the horizon. If a casino bill does not pass with a sitting governor personally pushing it and with the same party as the governor controlling the House, I think the casino form of expanded gambling will be off the table for a decade.
The town of Newbury was clear. In a December letter to local lawmakers, the town’s Board of Selectmen said the state should pay up on its commitments. The language was more subtle but the point was clear.
New Hampshire entered into agreements for tens of millions of dollars of funding for environmental infrastructure projects including drinking water, wastewater and landfill projects. Up until October, 2008, the state paid its share of the cost of the principal and interest payments.
The state was in a dire financial situation in the fall of 2008 and the governor decided to "delay and defer" the state’s payments.
Local government officials counted on state payments as agreed to but no payments were made in 2009-2012. The backlog of projects the state has not paid its share of the interest and principal payments include 100 wastewater projects, 17 public water supply projects and 8 landfill projects. In addition to Newbury, other area municipalities impacted include Claremont, Newport, Unity, Marlow and Hillsborough.
Interestingly, the federal government has paid its share of the principal and interest payments. The communities impacted suggest nonpayment by the state after agreements with the state is a downshifting of costs to those local communities. The failure of the state to pay is another example of state actions in 2008 and after to restrain state spending and keep our biennium budgets balanced during the recession. When the state does not pay its share, the state and local costs fall on the community … sometimes on a few ratepayers of municipal services.
The Senate Finance Committee held a public hearing on Senate Bill 168 on Tuesday. If passed, the state would be required to begin paying its obligation in the next biennium. No past unpaid obligations would be covered. The cost would be approximately $8.8 million over the next two years.