State House Dome: Expanded gambling push is on | Statehouse Dome

WELL UNDER THE RADAR so far, proponents of expanded gambling are making a big push in 2021.

The latest proposal is historical racing, in which players place wagers of up to $25 on races randomly selected from an archive of hundreds that already have been run. The gamblers don’t know the outcome, but they will be given background similar to a racing form on which to base their bets.

The big draw for this one is that, if approved, it would provide a trove of easy cash for New Hampshire charities, which have struggled during the pandemic.

“Destination casinos are never going to happen in New Hampshire. Now let’s support the model that we have,” said state Rep. Patrick Abrami, R-Stratham, the prime sponsor of the House bill (HB 626) that went before the House Ways and Means Committee late last week.

Joining Abrami on the bill are House Public Works and Highways Chairman John Graham, R-Bedford, Fish and Game Chairman Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton, and House GOP leadership member Fred Doucette, R-Salem.

A nearly identical Senate bill (SB 112) is backed by an even bigger collection of heavyweights, with Commerce Committee Chairman Harold French, R-Webster, anchoring the bill cosigned by Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Gary Daniels and Senate Democratic Leader Donna Soucy of Manchester.

No fewer than a dozen lobbyists have signed up to represent interests pushing this measure. The Granite State Poker Alliance of Manchester has on board five lobbyists from the Rath, Young and Pignatelli lobbying unit, including Dave Collins and Gina Powers, ex-GOP operative Joel Maiola and former Democratic gubernatorial chief of staff Rich Sigel.

Ex-state Rep. Fran Wendleboe and Mike McLaughlin are representing companies that sell very lucrative, pull-tab games at these charity gambling events.

GOP campaign adviser Alicia Preston represents the New Hampshire Charitable Gaming Operators, as does ex-Democratic state Rep. Rick Newman, who also stands in for Grover Gaming of Greenville, N.C., which is a historic racing player in other states.

You also have former Senate President Peter Bragdon representing Churchill Downs, which operates one of the most lucrative historic racing programs in its home state of Kentucky.

Bragdon testified last week in support of a bid by Rep. Richard Ames, D-Jaffrey, to have a full-blown study into charitable gaming (HB 626).

During the early 2000s, when gambling casinos were seen as the big prize, historic racing was dismissed by most as a “niche” business with little growth potential.

That’s not the case any longer.

Only a handful of states offer historic racing, but Wyoming turned heads soon after it started in 2013.

State officials most recently reported that $793 million was bet on these races in 2019, with cities and towns getting $7.9 million of the profit, $2.9 million going to the state and $3.3 million into a horse breeder’s fund.

Under both New Hampshire bills, the state and charities would share 25% of the profit.

The New Hampshire Lottery estimates the state would net $12 million, and 30 charities would share up to $5.8 million.

House session in Bedford

House Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, announced that NH Sportsplex at 68 Technology Drive in Bedford will be the site of the House of Representatives’ first business sessions of 2021 on Feb. 24-25.

Packard said the facility’s 50,000 square feet of floor space will enable lawmakers to spread out and socially distance.

“We are working with the Department of Health and Human Services, the state fire marshal, Bedford Fire and Police, and the state police to ensure a risk-mitigated and secure environment for all members and staff in attendance.”

A health and safety plan will be published in next week’s House calendar, Packard said.

“We continue to research if a reasonable remote solution exists that will not compromise the operation of the 400 member House of Representatives. A solution that would meet our unique needs has not been identified,” Packard updated.

Everyone is growing weary of this.

“Looks like I’ll have to get a ride again… can’t wait until everyone is vaccinated and we can have session in the State House again so I can just walk,” tweeted Rep. Eric Gallager, D-Concord.

Hiring freeze ended

Gov. Chris Sununu last week ended a freeze on state hiring he put into place in response to the pandemic.

Sununu said in his state budget address that improving revenues and fiscal management reduced the forecast deficit for the current year to $50 million.

Last spring, Sununu warned the red ink could be as high as eight times that amount.

“The lifting of this hiring freeze is yet another sign that our management paid off and our economy is on its way to returning to the historic highs of before this pandemic,” Sununu said.

Hassan polling tepid

A New Hampshire Institute of Politics poll released last week is certain to fuel “Run Chris Run” talk of a U.S. Senate bid.

Asked whether Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., should be reelected next year, 39% said yes and 47% said they were looking for someone else. The rest were undecided.

Sununu told the Good Morning New Hampshire program with Jack Heath last Friday that the numbers were no surprise.

“Everybody in New Hampshire wants people to get stuff done and in Washington. They aren’t doing the job,” Sununu said.

Hassan’s favorability rating was better, 49% favorable to 40% unfavorable. Sununu’s, meanwhile, remains strong — 72% favorable to 27% unfavorable.

Democratic Party spokeswoman Gates MacPherson noted that U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., had a favorability rating of 36% before cruising to a fifth term in the 2nd District.

Feltes is back

After several weeks of relative silence, 2020 Democratic nominee for governor Dan Feltes of Concord returned to the political stage with several social media postings critical of Sununu’s state budget plan.

Last Friday, Feltes went after Sununu’s bid to eliminate the 5% tax on interest and dividends over five years.

“Erasing the Interests & Dividends tax benefits the wealthiest 10 percent who will receive over 80 percent of the benefit. In the past, folks in both parties opposed this. Some cynically push this as a way to help ‘struggling seniors.’ That’s false,” Feltes posted on Twitter.

“The best interest-bearing savings account rate right now: 0.60%. The exemption for individuals is $2,400, with additional $1,200 if you are 65 or older. So, seniors must have an interest-bearing savings account of at least $600,000 before even paying one cent.”

“Dividends are payouts by publicly-listed companies as a reward to wealthy investors. If you get dividend payouts from big corporations, I bet you are doing just fine. You know who is not? Property taxpayers, including working families & seniors on fixed incomes.”

Sununu spokesman Benjamin Vihstadt responded.

“I must have missed Dan’s swearing-in as governor. It looks like he’s learned nothing from his landslide defeat, where his pro-income tax record as majority leader of the Senate helped bring back a GOP majority this session. But then again, it’s no surprise that Dan prefers the government keep more of seniors’ hard earned money,” Vihstadt said.

GOP attacks Thomas

With the House special election in Merrimack heating up, state GOP leaders are reviving a Feb. 3, 2020 controversy involving Democratic candidate and ex-state Rep. Wendy Thomas.

Republican Bill Boyd and Thomas are locked in a competitive race to replace late House Speaker Dick Hinch, who died last December. The election is April 13.

A Department of Safety worker sent a complaint to House staff leaders about Thomas’ visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a Real ID license.

According to the email, Thomas didn’t have the documents she needed.

At one point, she declared “this is (expletive) ridiculous” and later said, “I’m a state rep and I shouldn’t have to be subjected to this.”

“It is bad enough we get customers that are nasty to us when they are missing documents, but to have a NH state representative treat us like this is awful,” an unidentified employee wrote to legislative operations chief Terry Pfaff.

On Feb. 14, 2020, then-House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff told Thomas his Advisory Group on ethics had recommended she receive a letter of caution about her actions.

“This Letter of Caution is issued with the understanding and hope that you will consider your future conduct with care and act in a manner befitting the honor and style of a state representative,” Shurtleff wrote.

GOP Executive Director and Salem GOP Rep. Joseph Sweeney of Salem condemned Thomas’ behavior.

“Elected officials in New Hampshire need to set a good example for the Granite State, not seek special privileges connected to their service,” Sweeney said.

“If this is Wendy Thomas’ idea of serving, this episode is completely disqualifying and Merrimack voters should take note,” Sweeney said.

Thomas issued a statement of apology.

“There is no excuse for lashing out at any employee and I regret my choice of words. Our state employees work hard for Granite Staters every day and have been working tirelessly throughout the pandemic,” Thomas said.

Jewish reps speak out

Trying to keep the pressure on two GOP state representatives, 10 Jewish state reps urged Packard to take action against what they viewed as anti-Semitic postings on social media.

State Rep. Dawn Johnson, R-Laconia, has apologized for her post, which she pulled soon after being criticized for it. Packard said he didn’t consider a post by Rep. James Spillaine, R-Deerfield, to be anti-Semitic.

“We are asking that you forthwith – in the clearest and most unambiguous terms – impose significant sanctions against Rep. Johnson and Rep. Spillane,” said the letter from the group led by Rep. Paul Berch, D-Westmoreland.

“We often refer to the NH House as ‘family.’ We have a problem in our family and we have a duty to deal with it, because history teaches us that to leave it festering will only make the problem worse,” said the group led by Rep. Paul Berch, D-Westmoreland.

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