By John Toole
---- — SALEM — Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, has a plan for a casino at Rockingham Park that would split state revenues from expanded gaming among highways, colleges and North Country economic development.
Morse, in an interview Friday, sketched out his bill the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which oversees revenues and tax policy, is expected to hear on Feb. 19 in Concord.
The bill would award a single gaming license that would put $80 million total into the state budget over the 2014-2015 period, he said.
Morse envisions revenues from casino gaming delivering more than $100 million into state coffers annually in future years.
He is co-sponsoring the bipartisan measure with Sens. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, and Jim Rausch, R-Derry.
“Basically, there will be three buckets: one for the highway system, one for the college system and one for North Country development,” Morse said. “Those are the buckets we are interested in putting money through.”
Morse will outline the proposal before the Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce at a breakfast Friday at the Atkinson Resort and Country Club. The forum is set for 7:45 a.m.
Morse expects the Senate to pass the bill next month.
“We’re going to push that one,” he said of his bill.
The House promises to be more complicated.
In addition to the Senate proposal that would cross over to the House, Morse said, there are several House-sponsored gaming expansion bills up for consideration.
Gov. Maggie Hassan also will have a say.
While campaigning for office, Hassan said she would support a single casino and said it would make sense to site it near the Massachusetts border because of the Bay State’s own gaming expansion moves.
The Morse bill would concede to Hassan on that point. Previously, Morse had said senators pushing expanded gaming were willing to debate with her on how many casinos New Hampshire would allow.
Hassan also has said she would want an open bid process because of interest among many communities to host a casino.
“We have to have a very open and transparent process,” Hassan said in an interview last year.
Morse’s proposal will provide for a bid process.
Gaming observers have long conceded Rockingham Park would have the inside track in a licensing bid process because Las Vegas-based Millenium Gaming Inc. already has an option to buy the former racetrack.
Millenium has estimated a casino project would create 2,000 construction jobs and 2,500 gaming industry jobs.
“Obviously, Rockingham is the place,” said former Sen. Bob Letourneau of Derry.
Letourneau has long opposed expanded gaming, but acknowledges The Rock is what makes sense.
“They have the parking, the acreage, they are right there on the highway and in the center of the population,” he said Friday.
The Morse bill, by committing to a single casino license, would make Hassan happy. But it would risk alienating North Country lawmakers, who have in past years have pushed for gaming at grand hotels.
By targeting state aid for North Country development, Morse could keep lawmakers from that region open to limiting expanded gaming to Southern New Hampshire.
Letourneau said the North Country could use help, such as development of technology infrastructure, so the proposal makes sense.
“The reason, always, is getting votes,” he said of the Morse plan.
The North Country is also the wrong place for a casino if lawmakers want gaming revenues, in Letourneau’s opinion.
“The North Country would only appeal to people staying in those hotels,” he said.
In the past, North Country lawmakers have said casino gaming would attract Canadians. But Letourneau said Canada has its own casinos, so people would be less likely to come to the North Country as a destination for gaming.
Hassan also has insisted on strong regulatory oversight.
The Morse bill would provide for regulation through the Lottery Commission and the Department of Safety.
“Two oversight groups would be involved,” Morse said.
Revenues would be available from the gaming license for the state budget in 2014 and 2015, though a casino would not open before 2016, Morse said.
Legislators will be closely watching Hassan’s budget proposal, expected to be announced Feb. 14, for signs that she is looking to gaming as a revenue source.
Hassan has said she would like to boost college funding back to its former level of $100 million. Without new revenue, that’s in doubt.
“There’s no room to do that,” Morse said.
The bill would include protections for charity gaming, Morse said.
“That’a good thing,” Letourneau said, pointing to groups such as the Salem Boys and Girls Club that derive revenue from charity gaming.
Critics of expanded gaming have suggested a casino could undermine charity gaming.