- Associated Press - Sunday, January 4, 2015

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - Casino gambling nearly gained enough momentum to pass the House during Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan’s first term, and its supporters are optimistic heading into the new session.

But competing priorities over how to spend the money could once again make it difficult to muster enough support to pass the 400-member House. The House has never passed casino gambling, but Hassan’s aggressive support for a casino - a break from her predecessor - marked an upswing for the chances of passage.

Last year, representatives killed a bill legalizing two casinos by one vote. Democratic Sen. Lou D’Allesandro is putting forward a similar bill this year. He and other casino supporters have long viewed expanded gambling as a clear way to bring non-tax revenue and jobs to the state, while opponents say it is an unreliable source of revenue that brings negative social costs.

In recent years, House leaders have considered casinos a “conscience vote” and haven’t pushed members to vote a certain way. Republican Speaker Shawn Jasper’s leadership team will likely continue that approach. At least 10 members of the House Ways and Means Committee, which will review any casino bills, are against gambling. Seven are pro-gambling and four could not be reached for comment.

Massachusetts gave the green light to casinos this November, and a $1.6 billion casino is underway in Everett near the New Hampshire border. Casino supporters say this makes it even more critical for New Hampshire to build its own casino. Detractors, meanwhile, say a casino here would be unable to compete.

Agreeing on how to spend money will be a major obstacle toward passage. In the past, casino bills have hinged not on representatives’ moral views of casinos but rather on the specifics of each bill. Democrats are more inclined to use the revenue to pay for more services or increase money for the university system, while a coalition of House Republicans wants the revenue to offset further reductions in business taxes.

Democratic Rep. Katherine Rogers, a casino supporter, said she thinks there is room for compromise. The pro-casino forces are more organized this time around, she said.

“We’re ready for the fight, I think, where maybe we weren’t before,” she said.

But Steve Duprey, co-chairman of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, said the fate of casinos has only worsened. Casinos in Connecticut and New Jersey are losing money or closing, and Massachusetts’ new casinos will make it difficult for New Hampshire to attract out-of-state gamblers, he said. Casinos offer an unpredictable revenue source and take money away from other cultural institutions, he said.

“It is probably the least stable source of government funding there is (and) that sets aside any consideration of all the negative social costs,” Duprey said.

Clyde Barrow, project manager of the New England Gaming Research Project, argues that casino revenues in the Northeast have increased since 2006. States newly entering the casino market are faring well, but states that have long been in the casino market are struggling.

Hassan, for her part, hasn’t said whether she will put casino revenue in her next budget proposal, as she did in 2013, or whether she would sign a bill legalizing casinos.

“Gov. Hassan continues to believe that moving forward with New Hampshire’s own plan for one highly regulated destination casino is the right step for keeping revenue in New Hampshire that we can use to invest in the priorities that are critical for long-term economic success,” her spokesman William Hinkle said.

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