SALEM — There are few issues on which Democrats and Republicans agree.
But if you’re from Salem and running for a seat in the state Legislature, chances are you support expanded gambling.
That’s because a plan to establish a multimillion-dollar casino at Rockingham Park racetrack is expected to create thousands of jobs, generate millions in annual revenue and revitalize a slumping economy.
For the two District 22 Senate hopefuls and most of the candidates running for nine seats in House District 8, approval of expanded gambling is desperately needed. They voiced their opinions on gaming and other key state issues last night at a candidates forum hosted by the Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce.
Only about a dozen people attended the forum at Salem High School, but many more watched the locally televised event at home.
The nearly two-hour forum was led by moderator Peter Rayno. It began with Republican Senate incumbent Chuck Morse of Salem and Democratic challenger Victoria Czaia of Atkinson fielding questions on numerous issues for 30 minutes. Czaia is the only candidate not from Salem.
Then, the 12 out of 18 House candidates who attended responded to questions on expanded gambling, adoption of an income tax, education, infrastructure, the economy and health care for almost an hour and a half.
But the proposal for a casino at the century-old racetrack and the need for lawmakers to approve expanded gaming to make that happen dominated the forum.
“I think a casino would do great things for this area,” Czaia said. Establishing a casino at Rockingham Park would create about 4,500 full- and part-time jobs, and raise millions in revenue for both Salem and the state, she said.
Failure to bring casino gambling to The Rock means that money would be spent at casinos in Massachusetts, Czaia said. “That’s an awful lot of money to look away from,” she said.
Morse agreed a casino is needed, boosting the state and local economy and providing much-needed revenue to improve highways and lower business taxes.
For the House candidates, it also didn’t matter to which party they belonged.
Most of the 12 on hand, regardless of their party affiliation, said they welcomed a casino at Rockingham Park. Traditionally, many New Hampshire Republicans have supported expanded gambling while most Democrats have been opposed.
Democratic Gov. John Lynch has been opposed as well, but he’s leaving office in January. The two gubernatorial candidates — Republican Ovide Lamontagne and Democrat Maggie Hassan — have said they are willing to support limited expanded gambling.
Veteran lawmaker Gary Azarian, a Republican, said a casino would help resolve some of New Hampshire’s fiscal woes, putting unemployed people back to work and generating $80 million a year in revenue. “We need to bring jobs to the state of New Hampshire,” he said.
Fellow Republican Robert Elliott said the options are limited. “There are no other new sources of revenue that I know of other than taxes,” he said.
Democrats agreed with the need for expanded gambling as well, including Susan Desmet. “I don’t see this is going to have a negative impact,” she said. “I see this as a positive.”
Some candidates who have opposed gambling in the past said they are ready to support a casino at Rockingham Park if it’s going to provide a big economic boost.
Candidates such as Democrat Rebecca Fee said they back a casino at the racetrack, but want to make sure those with gambling addictions receive the help they need.
But Republican incumbent John Sytek was not convinced casino gambling would help resolve the state’s financial troubles. “I want it to work, but it won’t,” he said.
On other issues, Morse and Czaia were often in agreement, including their support for a proposed constitutional amendment that would prohibit adoption of an income tax.
The House candidates were split on the amendment, with Republicans backing the measure and Democrats opposed.
Many of the candidates said the Legislature needs to restore some of the $48 million cut from the university system’s budget last year. The candidates also said the Interstate 93 widening project needs to be completed, boosting tourism and the state’s economy.
Most Republicans said they supported charter schools in the state while some Democrats said they should only be funded through private sources.
Other House candidates who participated in the forum were incumbent Marilinda Garcia and fellow Republicans Patrick Bick and Bianca Garcia. Other Democrats who took part were Lawson Brouse, Dee Lewis, Michael Murray and Ralph Stein.
Six candidates did not attend. They were incumbent Ronald Belanger and fellow Republicans Joseph Sweeney and Anne Priestley. Democrats not present were Harley Featherston, Camron Iannalfo and John Murphy.
Recent redistricting means Salem has nine seats of its own in the House and is no longer part of a 13-member district that included Windham.