By John Toole
---- — CONCORD — A New Hampshire casino bill cleared a Senate committee yesterday.
The full Senate is expected to take up the issue as soon as next week, after the Ways and Means Committee recommended passage for Senate Bill 152 on a 4-1 vote.
“We’re off to a good start,” Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry said. “This is great for our area. I am very, very pleased.”
The bill was expected to sail through the committee.
Rausch and Sens. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, sponsors of the bill, all serve on the committee, so the odds were in their favor.
“I think we were expecting a positive decision,” Morse said. “We are looking forward to a strong vote out of the Senate next Thursday. The timing for this bill is right.”
They received support from Sen. Andrew Hosmer, D-Laconia.
Chairman Bob Odell, R-Lempster, opposed the bill.
Rausch said Odell has opposed gaming expansion in the past.
Prospects for passage by the full Senate also are good.
Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, last week testified in support of the bill, which has bipartisan support.
Hassan praised the bill’s sponsors and applauded the committee vote, saying a casino is critical for creating jobs and building a more innovative economic future.
“With Massachusetts moving forward with casino gambling, New Hampshire stands to lose $75 million per year if we fail to act,” Hassan said. “The true risk we all face is the risk of letting our economy fall behind and allowing the good jobs and growing businesses of the innovation economy develop elsewhere.”
Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, has previously predicted the Senate would pass the bill.
The chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, Jim Rubens, also has predicted the fight over the bill will come in the House, not the Senate.
SB 152 calls for licensing one casino in New Hampshire through a bid process.
The state would receive $80 million through a licensing fee.
The bill calls for splitting future gaming revenues, estimated at more than $100 million annually, among highways, colleges and economic development for the North Country.
Local voters would have to approve siting a casino in their community.
State police, the Lottery Commission and the attorney general’s office all would have a role in approving or regulating the casino operator.
Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming Inc. has an option to purchase Rockingham Park in Salem and has made clear its intention to bid for the license, if the Legislature agrees to issue one.
Millennium has said a $450 million redevelopment of Rockingham Park would create 2,000 construction jobs and 1,300 gaming jobs.
Millennium spokesman Rich Killion called the Senate committee vote yesterday a big step forward.
“The growing consensus that now is the time to expand gambling is felt not just in the Senate, but illustrated in well over 60 percent of New Hampshire residents supporting a casino in New Hampshire,” Killion said.
“The people do not want to see our elected leaders simply hand to Massachusetts the tens of millions in non-taxpayer revenue, the thousands of jobs and significant economic development opportunities that should occur here in New Hampshire.”
The Concord-based Center for Public Policy Studies last week issued a report, warning lawmakers to be cautious about relying on gaming revenues when they build the state budget.
Yesterday, Joe Casey, president of the New Hampshire Building and Construction Trades Council, who has advocated for passage of SB 152, was critical of the study.
“We believe the social costs derived from the center’s own assumptions are overstated,” Casey said.
On Tuesday, Salem voters will consider a nonbinding referendum, unrelated to the legislation, about whether the community should host a casino.