By John Toole
---- — CONCORD — A House hearing on a proposed New Hampshire casino yesterday pitted new jobs and revenue against concerns over crime and political influence from the gaming lobby.
Gov. Maggie Hassan told House lawmakers a casino will provide a needed revenue stream for state services.
“With intense competition from Massachusetts looming, the time to move forward is now,” Hassan said.
The governor testified in support of Senate Bill 152 at a crowded hearing in Representatives Hall at the Statehouse attended by about 250 people.
Hassan offered to take questions for 15 minutes, but none of the House lawmakers asked her any.
The Senate-passed bill would license for $80 million one casino, by bid and with local community approval through a binding referendum. The casino would allow up to 150 table games and 5,000 slot machines.
Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming Inc., which has an option to buy Rockingham Park in Salem, intends to bid for the casino license that would require the developer invest $425 million.
“Senate Bill 152 is an economic recovery, job creation package,” Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, a Senate sponsor, told the joint House Ways & Means and Finance Committee reviewing the bill.
Millennium has estimated a casino could create 2,000 construction and 1,500 gaming jobs. Legislative backers say the state could see more than $100 million in revenue annually once a casino opens.
Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, a Senate sponsor, said New Hampshire will lose revenue to Massachusetts if the Bay State opens casinos and the Granite State doesn’t.
“We want to win,” Morse said. “We don’t want to lose to Massachusetts.”
Morse also pointed to a new poll from the University of New Hampshire showing nearly two-thirds of respondents supporting a casino.
Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice opposed the bill, warning it could increase crime and pose the potential for political corruption.
“The income stream from gambling comes at a huge societal cost,” Rice said.
Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, challenged Rice, wondering if her office is willing to accept less money as the state struggles to fund services without expanded gaming.
“If you have a constructive solution, I’m all ears,” Sapareto told her.
Rep. Patrick Bick, R-Salem, conceded he was among the 20 percent of Salem voters opposed to a casino in a non-binding referendum last month.
Bick questioned the reliability of revenues from gaming, saying it is a dying industry, and wondered whether Salem will see the high-end casino proponents envision.
“If Salem were to get it, would we get stuck with a glorified slot barn?” Bick asked.
Salem Selectman Stephen Campbell supported the bill, saying it would be good for New Hampshire to have a casino, even if it is built somewhere else.
“I think it would be good for the whole state, not just Salem,” Campbell said.
While unions, including the Londonderry-based Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire, supported the bill because of job creation and revenues for state services, others warned of the social costs.
Lew Feldstein, a leader in the Casino Free NH group, warned accepting one casino will mean more.
It’s not a question of if or whether, but when and how fast they will spread, Feldstein said.
“We will have gambling all across the state,” he said.
Joining Feldstein in opposition were former Attorney General Phil McLaughlin, Nashua Mayor Donalee Lozeau, the League of Women Voters and performing art centers, including the Music Hall in Portsmouth.
The joint House panel hears from experts when it convenes today at 9:30 a.m. at the Legislative Office Building.
Speaker Terie Norelli, meanwhile, has asked three subcommittees to look at key issues: regulation, potential revenues and community impact.