EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 28, 2014

N.H. Senate revives casino gaming debate

House gets one last chance

By John Toole

---- — CONCORD — The New Hampshire House rejected casino gaming earlier this month, but refused to dismiss more discussion of the issue this session.

Now the House will get one final chance, which is just what proponents, including Gov. Maggie Hassan want.

The Senate yesterday approved its own casino gaming bill, Senate Bill 366, on a 15-9 vote.

“The battle will be in the House,” said Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, a casino supporter.

The Senate bill differs from House Bill 1633, which failed on a 173-144 vote in the House two weeks ago.

Thus bill provides for two casinos, while the House version allowed for the one Gov. Hassan has said she wants.

The Senate version, as revised by prime sponsor Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, to appeal to House lawmakers, will include House-backed regulation measures.

Despite differences with the Senate version over the number of casinos, the governor’s office was encouraging of more consideration by the House.

“Gov. Hassan appreciates the Senate’s continued recognition that New Hampshire will soon see the impact of Massachusetts casinos right across our border in the form of lost revenue and potential social costs,” said Marc Goldberg, a spokesman for the governor. “The governor continues to believe that developing New Hampshire’s own plan for one highly regulated casino is the best course of action for investing in the priorities that are critical to long-term economic growth. She encourages members of the House to take this opportunity to invest in New Hampshire’s needs, not Massachusetts.”

Proponents of casino gaming are eager to capture annual revenues estimated as high as $100 million to fund state services.

University of New Hampshire polling shows the people want it, with 58 percent of respondents supporting casino gaming.

But opponents remained concerned about social costs and the potential for crime or political corruption.

“The latest casino bill is nothing but an attempt to buy votes in the House,” the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling and Casino Free NH said in a joint statement. “Debating another casino bill is nothing but a waste of time. The House has spoken. It’s time to move on.”

Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, was pleased the House will get a chance at last to debate a casino plan similar to what House proponents envisioned.

“The Senate did make it as it should have been voted on the House,” Sapareto said, alluding to more than $25 million in revenue sharing for towns and regulation House lawmakers have backed.

Sapareto said the House debate earlier this month didn’t give lawmakers a chance to hear an amendment proponents thought could get more votes.

“We didn’t get a chance to discuss that in the House,” he said.

Sapareto predicts another close House vote.

“We are right there,” he said.

If the House rejects casino gaming this session, Sapareto still expects passage next session.

“Next session, it is going to go,” he said.

In Salem, there is concern time is running out to save Rockingham Park and charity gaming.

Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming Inc. has a $600-million-plus casino development planned for Rockingham Park that would include a hotel and entertainment venue.

The company has said it would pursue a casino license if the Legislature approves one and estimates a casino would create 3,000 construction and gaming jobs combined.

A majority of Salem voters, in a non-binding referendum last year, supported casino gaming.

Legislative backers were pleased when Rep. John Sytek, R-Salem, moved into their camp, satisfied the House bill provided adequate regulation.

But proponents know it will be a tough fight in the House.

They will have to pick up at least 15 votes to change the outcome and there is division even in the Salem delegation.

Reps. Marilinda and Bianca Garcia, R-Salem, sisters, have opposed casino gaming in the past, though neither cast a vote on the House casino bill. Rep. Patrick Bick, R-Salem, did oppose the House version.