By John Toole
---- — SALEM — A gaming expansion bill is on the way to the Legislature that will agree to Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan’s desire for a bid process, but leave open for debate the number of casinos.
Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, will lead the fight as co-sponsor of the measure with long-time gaming expansion proponent Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester.
The senators were moving the proposal forward yesterday at the Statehouse. Morse said details are still to be worked out in the coming days.
The bill will provide for the competitive bid process Hassan repeatedly said on the campaign trail she would require to support expanded gaming.
“The governor has made clear what is acceptable to her,” Morse said.
Hassan spoke about the issue during a Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce forum at Rockingham Park in July.
“I believe strongly we can establish a highly regulated, high-end casino,” Hassan said. “If we can do it correctly, and I believe we can, we can create jobs and increase state revenues.”
Hassan wants only one casino venue, but that will be one of the talking points for the Legislature.
“We are willing to debate with her,” Morse said.
The Legislature will have many other familiar, related considerations to discuss, among them: regulation, the state’s licensing fee for a venue, the number and types of games, and how revenue will be used by the state.
Morse has supported gaming expansion measures before, but said he has never led the effort.
In the past, either the Legislature or the governor has stopped gaming expansion.
“I think there is a totally different atmosphere now,” Morse said. “With Massachusetts moving forward, those are revenues New Hampshire is going to lose. So, that is putting New Hampshire at a competitive disadvantage if we don’t move now.”
Hassan would not commit to siting a casino at Rockingham Park while campaigning, though she acknowledged one next to the Massachusetts border made sense.
She said there could be potential competition from Hudson, Seabrook or other border communities.
“We have to have a very open and transparent process,” Hassan said in an interview before the gubernatorial primary.
Morse said gaming studies have concluded the most valuable location for New Hampshire is on the southern border.
“That is where we will raise money,” he said.
Revenue estimates over the years have ranged into the hundreds of millions of dollars, but closer to $100 million since Massachusetts decided to permit casinos.
If Salem obtains a casino, it will create many jobs, Morse said.
Las Vegas-based Millenium Gaming Inc., which has an option to buy Rockingham Park, has estimated a casino project could create 2,000 construction jobs and 2,500 gaming industry jobs in Salem.
Former Sen. Bob Letourneau, a Republican from Derry and a gaming expansion opponent over the years, said the presence of two powerful senators from opposing parties bodes well for the bill’s prospects in the Senate.
“The Senate will pass it,” Letourneau said. “The House is up in the air, but has traditionally turned down gambling.”
But then Senate proponents will have negotiating leverage with the House as issues come to a head at the close of the session.
“They will have it and hold it over their heads in the House for the committees of conference at the end of the session,” Letourneau said.
He said yesterday he had not seen the bill, but expected Morse and D’Allesandro are working off a model D’Allesandro has reshaped through years of debate, one they also can tweak during the session.
“I’m sure they are modeling this on whatever Lou has been doing over the past four or five sessions,” Letourneau said. “They will file something and do amendments as it goes along.”
A proposal from D’Allesandro in 2010 called for slot machines at a half-dozen venues, including Rockingham Park, and said the state should get 39 percent of gaming dollars.
But there will be much discussion.
Letourneau said lawmakers will debate licensing fees, the percentage of the gaming pot the state will take, how much money will be put aside for problem gamblers, dollars needed for law enforcement and regulation, plus how to protect nonprofit groups now benefitting from charity gaming.
“I would say this has as good a chance of passing as any other time,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a slam dunk. The debate will be in the House.”
Businessman Larry Belair, fiscal agent for the Salem-based N.H. Casino Now campaign, said he is optimistic about passage.
“I think this is clearly the best opportunity we’ve had,” he said yesterday.
Belair said he understands Hassan’s position on a bid process because she wants what is best for the state.
“We’re confident Rockingham Park is the best deal,” he said. “It’s nestled right on the border, and has the highway and infrastructure right there.”
Belair also said Salem casino proponents are confident the state wants to bring back horse racing and there aren’t many options to Rockingham Park.
Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, said there are two key questions Hassan must answer.
“Will she stick with highly regulated? Will she stick with one?” Rubens asked. “Will Hassan cave?”
If Hassan wants a highly regulated casino industry that includes background checks, rules and proper evaluation of bids, that will take time, Rubens maintains.
“No way it is happening before the end of 2015 at the earliest,” he said.
The number of casinos also is critical to the vote outcome in the House, he said. Rubens notes in past years the fewer proposed venues, the fewer votes expanded gaming has received.
“The bill is dead on arrival,” Rubens said.
His take on the proposal: “Lou D’Allesandro’s casino bill likely will be a blanket-the-state casinos bill.”
Letourneau remains wary of expanded gaming because he doubts the revenues, given competition from neighboring states, will be what proponents hope.
“I hope they don’t have stars in their eyes,” he said.
Letourneau said he also is concerned about potential corruption or undue influence on the political process.
He grew up in Salem and remembers the political clout of Rockingham Park in its hey-day.
“In the glory days, they ran the Legislature,” he said. “Salem got whatever it wanted.”