By John Toole
---- — CONCORD — Players in the high stakes New Hampshire casino game are raising bets as action moves to the House.
The New Hampshire Troopers Association and New Hampshire Police Association, which represents rank-and-file law enforcement, yesterday declared support for Senate Bill 152 during a press conference in Concord.
The groups said a casino could help the state fund public safety programs, without causing major crime problems.
Seth Cooper, president of the 286-member Troopers Association, said he had spoken with police in states that have licensed casinos. While they reported increased traffic-related problems and motor vehicle offenses, they saw nothing in the way of high criminal element, he said.
“The mob hadn’t come into town,” Cooper said.
New Hampshire chiefs of police had opposed the bill in testimony before a Senate hearing last month due to concerns about increased crime.
But Cooper said police officers are lining up to support the casino because of the potential benefits to the state as a funding source.
About 40 trooper positions were lost in the last budget cycle, meaning longer waits for help for people in trouble on Interstate 93 and other highways, he said.
Revenue from gaming could restore some of those jobs, he said.
“Obviously, that would mean a lot more coverage out there for people in the southern tier,” Cooper said.
Gaming revenue also might aid safety programs to reduce drug trafficking or protect children, he said.
The casino bill, with backing from Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, cleared the Senate last week on an overwhelming 16-8 vote and now moves to the House. A hearing isn’t scheduled yet, the speaker’s office said yesterday.
“It’s time for the state representatives to represent the citizens of the state and sup port this piece of legislation,” Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, said in the aftermath of Senate approval.
The voters have spoken, both in Salem, where 81 percent last week approved a nonbinding referendum backing expanded gaming, and statewide in polls, with favorable numbers 60 percent or better, Rausch said.
“They have demonstrated they want gambling, not taxes,” he said.
SB 152 would license one casino, with up to 150 table games and 5,000 slot machines, by bid, with local approval through a binding referendum.
The bill calls for an $80 million licensing fee. Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming Inc., which has an option to buy Rockingham Park in Salem, has said it will bid, should the Legislature authorize a casino.
Proponents say the casino could bring the state more than $100 million annually once it opens, for colleges, highways, economic development and other purposes.
Rausch said expanded gaming would be good for the state and its workforce. The House, he said, must decide whether to participate.
“We’re giving them the opportunity to help economic improvement in our state in a non-tax way,” Rausch said.
House Republican Leader Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, concedes he’s not sure how the House will act on the casino plan.
“There have been dozens of expanded gaming proposals that have failed in the past,” Chandler said.
The House Finance Committee is working on a budget that doesn’t count on casino licensing fees, Chandler said. He remains skeptical the state will see licensing fees in time for the budget cycle, though Senate sponsors are confident the money will be there.
The New Hampshire Republican Party is questioning the role of state lottery officials in the casino issue, requesting phone logs, emails and correspondence from the governor’s office and the Lottery Commission under the state’s right-to-know law.
State GOP Chairman Jennifer Horn is accusing the governor’s office of an “ethically questionable” lobbying effort, which Hassan chief of staff Pamela Walsh disputed in a letter to Horn.
Horn has pointed out state law prohibits using state funds to lobby or try to influence legislation. Walsh told her the governor’s office has only asked executive branch officials to help legislators as a resource on a broad range of issues.
“It has been a long-standing practice in state government for department leaders to reach out to legislators and make themselves available to answer questions when they have relevant information,” Walsh wrote to Horn.
The Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling scheduled a luncheon briefing tomorrow for legislators with a former attorney general, Phil McLaughlin, who is expected to speak against casino gaming.
The coalition is highlighting falling gaming revenues in Connecticut and Pennsylvania as a reason New Hampshire shouldn’t succumb to arguments that a casino would help fund services.
“We urge the House to vote down SB 152 — the Salem slots barn monopoly bill — because casino money won’t fix the budget,” coalition chairman Jim Rubens said.