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New Hampshire lawmakers reject casino bill backed by governor

By Jason McClure

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Hampshire's House of Representatives rejected a bill on Wednesday that would have authorized the construction of the state's first casino, bucking a regional trend toward easing restrictions on gaming in New England.

Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan had campaigned hard for the bill because gaming would help raise needed revenue without increasing existing taxes and fees. The casino bill had earlier passed the Republican-controlled Senate, and she had included $80 million in her proposed budget from casino-licensing fees.

But the Democratic-led House of Representatives voted 199-164 to defeat the proposal, with members of both parties voting against it.

Those in favor had argued that without a casino New Hampshire was likely to lose revenue to neighboring Massachusetts, which in 2011 authorized the construction of three casinos.

"I remain committed to working with the legislature to finalize a balanced budget that restores the priorities that the people of New Hampshire support: job creation, higher education, economic development, strengthening our mental health system and protecting the health and well-being of our communities," said Hassan, in a statement following the vote.

"We must work together to keep our state moving forward and to ensure a brighter, more innovative economic future for all Granite Staters."

States in New England have increasingly turned to casinos in recent years to help close budget gaps and generate jobs. Maine opened its first slot machine parlor in 2005 and now has two casinos, as well as a Native American-owned bingo parlor.

Rhode Island has two slot machine parlors. In an effort to compete with Massachusetts, Rhode Island last year approved table gaming at one of its facilities. Connecticut has large tribal-owned casinos in two locations.

In 1964, New Hampshire became the first state to run a state-sanctioned lottery. Since then, repeated efforts to expand gambling there have foundered in the state's 400-member House.

Opponents of expanded gambling in New Hampshire credited the size of the House with making it difficult for pro-casino lobbyists to win sufficient support.

"We enjoy the benefits of this 400-member House - you can't buy it," said Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, an alliance of religious, business, civic and law-enforcement groups opposed to the bill.

"We're pleased obviously that despite the most intensive lobbying and arm-twisting effort to pass a gambling bill in the state, it failed," Rubens said. "It's really time for the governor to find a different budget solution."

(Reporting By Jason McClure; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Philip Barbara)

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