By Doug Ireland
---- — It’s almost like having a couple of appetizers before delving into the main course.
But for some members of the Legislature who support plans to allow expanding gambling in New Hampshire, two casino-related bills before the House yesterday didn’t belong on the same plate as a much-touted third proposal.
“It’s not even an appetizer,” Sen. James Rausch, R-Derry, said of the two bills. “It’s a different table that you’re at.”
Rausch is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 152, which calls for establishment of a casino offering up to 150 table games and 5,000 video slots.
Rausch and other backers of the legislation, including Gov. Maggie Hassan, say approval of expanded gambling would provide the state with millions of dollars in much-needed revenue each year.
SB 152 was passed by the Senate last week but faces an uncertain future in the Democratic-controlled House, which yesterday killed one casino bill and tabled another.
House Bill 665 was soundly defeated, 249-65. It called for two casinos, including one near the Massachusetts border but with no specified location although Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas hopes to open one at Rockingham Park in Salem.
Last week, 81 percent of Salem residents who voted in their town’s election supported a nonbinding referendum to allow a casino at the former racetrack.
The other legislation, House Bill 678, was tabled 170-160. It would have allowed 5,000 slots at six locations in the state.
Lawmakers agreed to table the bill, instead of killing it, to increase the House’s options when considering the gambling issue later this session. A two-thirds vote would be required to review the bill again.
For those who hope to soon see casino gambling in New Hampshire — such as Rausch, Millennium Gaming spokesman Rich Killion and Rockingham Park president and general manager Edward Callahan — the two House bills might as well be pushed off the Legislature’s plate.
They know the only hope for expanding gambling in the Granite State lies in SB 152, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem.
“I think SB 152 has to be evaluated on its own,” Rausch said.
Rausch, Morse and other backers have said the bill would generate $80 million for the state through the casino licensing fee alone. Hassan has already accounted for that money in her proposed budget.
The state is also expected to receive about $100 million in annual revenue, with a small percentage of proceeds going to the host community and surrounding towns.
Some of that revenue would be used to help finish the Interstate 93 widening between Salem and Manchester, the two senators said.
Raush yesterday denounced anti-gambling activists who urged lawmakers at a forum Wednesday in Concord to oppose casino legislation. He said they have yet to propose an alternative revenue source.
Killion and Callahan said they were glad to see House members discussing plans for introducing expanding gambling, but the real serious discussions won’t come until SB 152 lands on their plates.
“We look forward to the opportunity to broaden that conversation with SB 152,” Killion said.
“I think the governor has made it clear that a one-casino bill is what she will (support),” he said.
Rep Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston, a co-sponsor of HB 665, was disappointed the bill calling for two casinos was defeated.
“The vote was lopsided,” he said.
The bill proposed two casinos because when expanded gambling was considered by the Legislature in the past, some lawmakers argued that only allowing one in the state would constitute a monopoly, he said.
In a single day, the state’s options for allowing expanded gambling were reduced from three alternatives to a single proposal — SB 152, he said.
“Now, it’s the only thing that’s left,” Weyler said.
During the debate yesterday, it was sometimes difficult to determine who supported casino gambling and who didn’t because of the different ramifications offered by the three bills.
HB 678 wasn’t killed in case SB 152 didn’t pass the House, Weyler said.
“That way, there was something in the House that was a House proposal,” he said.
Opponents claimed the bill wouldn’t raise enough money for the state and that it didn’t offer a competitive licensing process.
Weyler is hopeful SB 152, which he also co-sponsored, will pass.
He’s also nervous since it’s difficult to gauge how much support the bill will receive from fellow House members.
“After this vote today, I’m still worried it may not pass,” he said.
Jim Rubens, spokesman for the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, issued a statement following the House votes yesterday.
“On its objective merit, casino gambling utterly fails among legislators weighing the arguments on both sides,” he said.
Rubens asked that New Hampshire residents contact their legislators and ask them to vote against SB 152.