By John Toole
---- — CONCORD — The New Hampshire Senate yesterday approved a casino licensing plan that could put $80 million into the state budget for the next two years.
Senate Bill 152 had the backing of Gov. Maggie Hassan and passed on a strong, bipartisan vote of 16-8. It now moves to the House, where expanded gaming opponents have long intended to stage their fight.
The bill is expected to face opposition in the House not only from lawmakers who oppose gaming, but also from some who would prefer the state license more casinos and others who want the state to fund programs with income or sales taxes.
“The Senate has sent a strong, bipartisan message today about how we can come together to fund our priorities, a message that echoes what I have heard from people and communities throughout New Hampshire,” Hassan said.
Hassan praised the work of Sens. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, who led the Senate fight. Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, also was a key supporter.
Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, voted for the gaming expansion bill. Sen. Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, voted against the bill.
“Without this revenue and without beginning to restore the devastating cuts of the last budget, we will risk failling behind economically,” Hassan said, “we will risk losing out on good jobs and innovative businesses, and we will risk letting the people of our state be denied access to the basic services needed to support their health and safety.”
The bill calls for licensing one casino, by bid, for $80 million. That revenue would go into the budget and advocates say the money will be used to pay for highways, colleges and economic development.
The casino is expected to generate more than $100 million per year in gaming revenue for the state once it comes online, though one critical study has said competition from Massachusetts would hurt revenues.
Hassan said gaming revenue also can support public safety and mental health services.
Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming Inc., which recently renewed its option to purchase Rockingham Park, intends to apply for a license and has said a casino at a redeveloped track would create 2,000 construction jobs and 1,300 gaming jobs.
“Today’s 2-to-1 margin of support for SB 152 by the Senate is a strong, bipartisan statement for the tens of millions of revenue, the thousands of jobs a casino would create, and the economic development it would generate,” Millennium spokesman Rich Killion said.
The Senate vote is similar to the opinions of New Hampshire residents who have supported a casino in surveys, he said.
“The people know standing by idly and ceding these benefits and opportunities to Massachusetts would be something New Hampshire would long regret,” Killion said.
Next up is the House battleground.
“The fight is and always has been in the House, where we see opposition firming over the past few weeks in both parties for different reasons,” said Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling.
Republicans want a responsible budget built on real revenues, while Democrats want sustainable support for programs, Rubens said.
“We have to take the battle to the House and we have a lot of convincing to do,” Morse said. “We are ready for it.”
Questions loom in the House
One who is on the fence is freshman Rep. Mary Till, D-Derry.
“I have not made up my mind,” Till said yesterday.
She said she shares former Gov. John Lynch’s concern that when a state budget is tied to an entity, that entity gains power over the state.
But, she said, she is listening as proponents say New Hampshire will have to deal with social costs no matter what, because Massachusetts is allowing casinos.
“That’s an argument that sways me in some respect,” Till said.
She also would like to see casino proponents put forth other revenue options.
“I think in the House, it is not at all clear how the House is going to vote on casino gambling,” she said.
Former Rep. David Bates of Windham, who has supported expanded gaming because his constituents wanted it, also hesitated to put odds on the House outcome.
“I think it’s going to be close, but it will come up short,” Bates said.
He acknowledged the opposition camp could include those concerned about social consequences, broad-base tax advocates, as well as libertarian-minded lawmakers troubled by state restrictions or who want more sites.
One potential House faction is those concerned about additional revenue enabling irresponsible spending, Bates said.
“That may be the biggest bloc opposed to it,” he said.
A nonbinding referendum at Town Meeting in Salem this week saw voters supporting a casino by a 4-1 margin, indicating the town is ready for a casino if the state awards one.
Yesterday’s Senate vote made it two big wins for casino advocates.
“It’s been a great week,” Morse said.
Morse remains hopeful on the House.
“There’s a different atmosphere up here with Massachusetts moving forward,” he said.
The bill also would let the host community and abutting communities share in revenues. If The Rock gets a casino, aid would flow to Salem, Derry, Hampstead, Windham and Pelham.
Hassan has made clear she would support a casino only with tight state regulation. SB 152 provides for oversight through the state Lottery Commission, state police and the Attorney General’s Office.
The bill would allow up to 150 table games and 5,000 slot machines at a casino. The developer would be required to invest more than $400 million into the project. The bill provides protection for charity gaming in place at the time the state approves a casino.
D’Allesandro has said a casino could be approved as soon as next year.
Millennium co-CEO Bill Wortman, speaking at a forum in Salem last month, said a $450 million, redeveloped Rockingham Park would open no later than 2016, if approved by the state.
Salem’s newly formed Casino Advisory Committee gathered for its first meeting last night. The nine-member panel, which includes Morse, was created to help the town plan for a casino possibly coming to Rockingham Park.
The group will determine how revenue from a casino would be used by the town and present its recommendations to selectmen.