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November 14, 2018

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New Hampshire House refuses to take up gambling bill

CONCORD, N.H. - Gambling supporters bet against the House and lost Thursday in their fight to legalize video poker machines at New Hampshire's four race tracks and at two North Country resorts.

The House voted 250-100 against considering the proposal.

The House voted last year not to consider legalizing video poker until next year. Under House rules, it takes a two-thirds vote to consider the issue this year, but the Senate sent the gambling measure over anyway.

Supporters argued it would fill a $40 million to $65 million budget shortfall created last year when lawmakers enacted a new school financing law but failed to fully fund it.

The shortfall and the fight over paying for schools remains an unresolved issue dividing the House, Senate and Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Shaheen and the Senate support raising revenues to fill the gap while House Speaker Donna Sytek and most House Republicans favor cutting spending.

The bill would have raised about $198 million. Besides taking care of the shortfall, some money would have been used to cut the statewide property tax rate from $6.60 to $6 per $1,000 of value. It also would have repealed the state's 18 percent inheritance tax.

The original bill that passed the House earlier this year only repealed the inheritance tax. Shaheen and others criticized it for not replacing the $25 million the tax raises every year for state programs.

Gambling supporters attached the gambling measure onto the inheritance tax repeal bill, which is popular in the House, in hopes of getting the package passed. Shaheen, a gambling supporter, said she would sign it since it replaced the inheritance tax revenue loss and dealt with the budget shortfall. Shaheen has asked state agencies to tell her how they would cut spending 3 percent to deal with the shortfall.

Though the House rejected the bill, it isn't dead. The Senate can take it back, strip off the gambling provisions and send the House something else.

House Democratic Leader Peter Burling of Cornish argued unsuccessfully that the House should at least debate whether legalizing gambling would be better than budget cuts to deal with the problem created by the education law.

Burling noted that the House promised last year to fund education at $825 million a year. He said the need to fund the school funding law took precedence over the vote against gambling last year.

"This is the last crack we have this term to fulfill that promise," he said.

Others argued the House has consistently rejected gambling and should stand by last year's vote. Rep. Elizabeth Hager, R-Concord, an income tax supporter, said she could not support gambling to pay for schools.

"That is not a choice for me," she said.

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, I-Manchester, a gambling supporter, urged the House not to consider the bill for a different reason.

"This is not the way to do it. This is a cynical ploy by the Senate to subvert the process we are sent here to uphold," he said.

State Sens. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, and Arthur Klemm, R-Windham, said it's now up to the House to come up with a plan to cut the statewide property tax rate, eliminate the inheritance tax and take care of the budget shortfall without raising taxes.

They led the fight to attach gambling to the inheritance tax bill in the Senate.

"The Senate provided the House with a viable means of averting imminent budget cuts and reducing taxes for New Hampshire citizens and it is troubling that this plan was stopped at the door," said D'Allesandro.

Pamela Walsh, Shaheen's news secretary, said it was "unfortunate that the House failed to take this opportunity to fill the gap in the school funding plan."

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