By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — Town approval of a nonbinding referendum at the polls next Tuesday will play a big role in determining whether a casino is built in New Hampshire, especially at Rockingham Park, selectmen were told last night.
Establishing a multi-million-dollar casino at the former racetrack would mean $13.5 million in annual revenue for Salem, according to Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem.
Morse is a cosponsor of a proposal, Senate Bill 152, that paves the way for expanded gambling in the Granite State. Revenues from gaming are a key component of Gov. Maggie Hassan’s proposed state budget, including an anticipated $80 million from the casino licensing fee.
State lawmakers’ first vote on the bill comes today when the five-member Senate Ways and Means Committee makes its recommendation on the legislation. Morse is a member of the committee, as is Sen. James Rausch, R-Derry.
Morse said he expects the committee will back the bill and send it on to the full Senate, which votes on the legislation March 14 — two days after Salem residents go to the polls.
“We need a big vote in Salem .... those who are against it, stay home,” Morse joked. “I need a strong vote from Salem to make that go forward.”
The bill’s fate in the Democrat-controlled House is uncertain, Morse said. He was joined at the meeting by two other Republican lawmakers from Salem, Rep. Gary Azarian and Rep. Anne Priestley.
“We know we need to convince people in the state,” Morse said. “We know it’s going to be a challenge to get the license and Salem should be fighting for it,”
But a little persuasion may be needed in Salem as well.
When Selectmen’s Chairman Patrick Hargreaves asked how many of Salem’s nine state representatives support a casino, Azarian hesitated.
“You do not have 100 percent representation from Salem,” he said.
He said “50 to 60 percent” of the town’s nine representatives support the proposal.
“I am not going to name names,” Azarian said.
“I believe I know who the four are,” Hargreaves said.
All five of Salem’s selectmen support a casino.
Morse and Azarian said the state could lose millions of dollars in annual revenue if New Hampshire doesn’t approve expanded gambling.
Azarian said that figure is estimated at $180 million to $200 million a year.
Casinos are being built in surrounding states, including Massachusetts and Maine, they said. A Las Vegas company has an option to build a casino at Rockingham Park.
“The upside is great,” Azarian said. “The downside if we do nothing is even greater.”
Morse praised selectmen for forming a nine-member committee to consider all the issues involved in establishing a casino in Salem.
“I think putting this committee together is a wise move,” he said.
But at the beginning of their meeting, selectmen were criticized by Budget Committee Chairman Russell Frydryck for not including a member of his committee on the casino panel.
Twenty people have applied to sit on the panel, which would feature six residents, a selectman, a School Board member and a state lawmaker from Salem.
Selectman Michael Lyons said the Budget Committee was inadvertently excluded from having a member on the panel. He made a motion to add a Budget Committee member and increase the number of residents on the panel from six to seven, making the total 11 members.
But Selectman Everett McBride Jr. said 11 was too many people. The board voted, 3-2, against the proposal, with Hargreaves and Stephen Campbell also in opposition.
Campbell said he voted against adding a Budget Committee member because he disagrees with the group’s philosophies.
He said the committee is more interested in expenses than generating revenue.