High-stakes and easy money

A meeting last Monday meant a special trip to Concord but it was worth it.

There was a briefing for House and Senate leaders in the Attorney General’s office on a settlement reached between the state and a group of tobacco companies. After months of negotiations, an agreement was reached that will protect New Hampshire’s interests in the annual payout by tobacco companies to the states.

In November of 1998, New Hampshire and 45 other states entered into the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) that requires the participating tobacco companies to make annual payments to the states. The payment is based on 50 cents per pack sold. This fiscal year we will receive about $42.4 million.

Readers may recall the agreement surprised many of us. The companies had denied the connection between cigarette smoking and cancer for years but in the MSA they agreed to fund a national foundation devoted to educating the public about the dangers of tobacco use. They also agreed to restrictions on advertising and marketing, especially ads directed toward young people.

The states had some obligations, too. One was to “diligently enforce” the obligation of small tobacco companies that were not part of the MSA to pay 50 cents per pack into escrow accounts.

The larger companies who are part of the MSA sued 35 states saying the states were not diligently enforcing the escrow payments by the tobacco companies not in the MSA. New Hampshire, along with 18 other states, reached a tentative agreement that will protect the states’ annual payment in the future. The state is committed to fulfill its obligations relative to the smaller companies’ escrow payments.

Only New Hampshire of the 19 states prepared to settle needs legislative approval to move forward, and the legislation needs to be in the governor’s hands for signature by March 22.

The Monday meeting was to get legislative leaders to act quickly. And we did. On Tuesday, as part of the regular weekly meeting of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, we held a well attended public information session on the agreement and need for legislation.

When the full Senate met on Thursday, the rules were suspended at the beginning of the session to allow a bill to be drafted “authorizing the Attorney General to join the settlement of accrued claims relating to the non-participating tobacco manufacturers’ adjustment disputes …”

A short time later the bill, Senate Bill 199, had been drafted and was voted “ought to pass” on a unanimous voice vote.

This week the House Judiciary Committee will hold a public hearing on SB 199 and the House will take up the bill at its weekly session so the Governor can sign the bill into law by Friday’s deadline. Most of the time, the work of the legislature is done at a steady, deliberate and predictable pace. When it needs to, the leadership of both parties in the House and Senate can pull together so we do our work in an expedited manner.

Casinos and New Hampshire

The TV cameras were in one corner of the Senate chamber, all seats at the press table were taken and the gallery was nearly full. They were all there to see the Senate vote on Senate Bill 152, the bill to expand gambling by authorizing one casino and creating a panel to look into additional casinos down the road.

Senator Lou D’Allesandro (Manchester) led off the debate as the bill’s prime sponsor.

He noted it was 50 years to the day since the House voted in favor of establishing the New Hampshire Lottery, the first lottery in the country. He went on to point out the potential threat casinos in Maine pose to our lottery sales and the expected competition Massachusetts’ three new casinos will be for New Hampshire’s entertainment and gambling dollars.

Other senators spoke in favor. Surprisingly, only one senator, Martha Fuller Clark (Portsmouth) spoke in opposition. After the vote, opponents said there was no purpose in debating the issues involved. The votes have been in place for months. There was no one to persuade.

Sen. D’Allesandro has been out in front pushing for casino gambling in New Hampshire for more than a decade. Every session his bills change, whether it is the number of licenses to be offered, locations identified and the amount of upfront license fees and taxes to be charged. So, too, have the uses for the taxes and fees changed over time.

When the casino bill came to the floor in my first Senate session, the goal was to raise money to increase the purses for thoroughbred racing to return horse racing to New Hampshire, encourage horse breeding and thus preserve open space. In 2009, initial gambling license fees would have funded $50 million of Health and Human Services programs.

This year, Gov. Maggie Hassan wants to use the license fee monies for mental health programs and to restore funds to the University System. In contrast, the Senate bill on Thursday would distribute the license fee money to university system funding (45 percent), roads and bridges (45 percent) and economic development grants to the North Country (10 percent).

Whenever expanded gambling is before the legislature, it always sounds like easy money to pay for the favored programs of the moment.

The bill passed the Senate 16-8.

Bob Odell, a Republican, is the New Hampshire senator representing Antrim, Bennington and Francestown, among other towns.

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