Unions offer new backing for gambling

Unions representing state troopers, firefighters and state workers encouraged a Senate panel yesterday to pass a bill legalizing slot machines at tracks and new casinos.

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Unions representing state troopers, firefighters and state workers encouraged a Senate panel yesterday to pass a bill legalizing slot machines at tracks and new casinos.

The labor groups joined the New Hampshire Police Association in general support of expanded gambling. The New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police and the New Hampshire Attorney General's Office remain the two leading law enforcement groups opposed to it.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee heard testimony on two bills, Senate Bill 169 and SB 179. Under SB 169, the state would staff, manage and operate gambling at a privately owned casino through a new Gaming Authority. Under SB 179, the state would oversee privately operated gambling at tracks and North Country casinos through existing agencies and law enforcement.

While unions said the state needs new revenue to maintain public services, sponsors of the bills focused on jobs and economic development badly needed during the recession.

Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, said his bill, which will bring in $110 million in licensing fees within a year, will provide construction jobs short-term and service jobs that last. He noted that Massachusetts now is considering a proposal to set up three slot parlors.

"We are in a competitive situation, but in my opinion New Hampshire does it better, more efficiently and more effectively," he said.

Sen. John Gallus, R-Berlin, said his district needs economic help.

"Layoffs have sort of become a way of life in the North Country," he said. "We need a quick fix. We can't wait any longer." Senior Assistant Attorney General Will Delker said the office continues its 30-year stance against expanded gambling.

"The societal costs will far outweigh any benefit from it," he said, noting that a 2005 study found local crime rates rise two years after gambling opens up.

New Hampshire Troopers Association President Louis Copponi said his board is confident crime will not spike, and feels it is capable of handling the enforcement job that D'Allesandro's bill gives State Police.

"This is not a negative for our state," he said.

Copponi said that he checked with law enforcement in states that have recently expanded legalized gambling with slot machines at tracks and casinos.

"They tell us it doesn't adversely affect the quality of life, and crime does not go up. In fact, it enhances the quality of life with revenue and with jobs" said Copponi. "Don't not pass this because you're being told crime is going to skyrocket. To be honest, I think budget shortfalls are causing at least as much effect on the quality of life as you might by passing this bill," he said.

The board of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire voted unanimously in favor of the bill, PFFNH President David Lang said.

State Employees Association spokesman Jay Ward said SEA is making a first-ever endorsement of expanded gambling.

"We weren't that opposed to gambling in the past, but this is the first time we have weighed in in support of it," Ward said.

In each case, the unions said the need for revenues is a consideration. Estimates are that at full build-out, the slot machine industry could bring the state roughly $200 million a year.

Beside pay issues, police and firefighters said they are looking for money to replace training funds that the Legislature tapped as part of a solution to budget shortfalls this year. D'Allesandro's bill would dedicate 1 percent of revenue into training budgets.

Lang said he's also concerned about public safety as layoffs begin to hit cities and towns.

"Fire doubles in size every minute. It's seconds, not minutes that count when a fire breaks out," he said.

Historically, the Senate has been friendlier to gambling issues than the House, which votes today on two legalized gambling bills.

Jim Rubens, of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, said his fingers are crossed that the House will reject both bills.

He said that versions of the bills are so similar that a House defeat will set out a position that House members cannot abandon later in the session.

Lou Feldstein of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation said that studies have shown that when gambling passes, "every single sign of civil health goes down -- people vote less, give to charity less, go to church less, are less likely to serve on boards, or to trust their local officials, even their neighbors ... You can't say it has no impact."

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