By John Toole
---- — Gov. Maggie Hassan yesterday became the first New Hampshire governor to support a casino.
Her support could boost Las Vegas-based Millenium Gaming Inc.’s $450 million redevelopment plan for Rockingham Park, which the company has said would create 2,000 construction and 1,300 gaming jobs.
“This is very good news,” said Larry Belair, fiscal agent for the N.H. Casino Now campaign. “The next immediate step is to get a strong vote from the people of Salem indicating to Concord that we are prepared to host this facility,”
A nonbinding referendum is before Salem voters on their Town Meeting ballot March 12.
Hassan’s support for a casino wasn’t a surprise. She had said on the campaign trail she could accept one.
But her predecessors from both parties in the governor’s office had refused to accept one, so the formal announcement in her budget message to the Legislature was historic.
She said she was including $80 million in projected licensing revenue from a casino in her budget.
Hassan acknowledged expanded gaming as an ongoing, difficult debate.
Expanded gaming a reality
“But the social costs many are worried about are already here,” she said, “and with Massachusetts moving forward, we can no longer pretend that expanded gambling isn’t coming to our communities. It is.”
The question is whether New Hampshire will let Massachusetts take revenue away from the state’s needs, Hassan said.
“I believe we should move forward with one high-end casino,” she said, “while at the same time protecting New Hampshire’s brand as a family-friendly state with a great outdoor economy.”
Gaming revenue could help freeze college tuition, address mental health system problems and boost the economy, Hassan said.
She asked lawmakers to keep an open mind and said she saw developments in Massachusetts as reason for hope, not concern.
“With the intense competition for casinos in Massachusetts leading to 11 applications for only three licenses, it’s clear that there is more than enough room in our region for a New Hampshire casino,” Hassan said.
She called Senate Bill 152, the bipartisan Senate gaming bill from Sens. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, “a good starting point.”
The bill meets several of Hassan’s conditions, aired on the campaign trail, for a casino: a bid process, local approval through a binding referendum, oversight through state agencies. The proposal calls for the Lottery Commission and state police to regulate a casino.
The bill, which provides for up to 5,000 slot machines and 150 table games, is headed to a Senate hearing Tuesday at the Statehouse.
“She’s done the right thing,” Morse said.
Where the money would go
An amendment to the bill would target $65 million of the casino licensing revenue to higher education, he said.
Morse, the Senate Finance chairman, speculated Hassan would tap the balance of the $80 million for mental health services funding, another pressing concern for the state.
Future revenues derived when the casino is up and operating would go to highways — finishing the Interstate 93 widening is a priority — and economic development, Morse said.
N.H. Casino Now, organized by Salem business and civic leaders last year to push the casino project, will be at the Statehouse next week, backing the bill.
“Salem is the best, most practical choice” for a casino, Belair said.
The Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce supports expanded gaming at Rockingham Park, but is still reviewing the bill, according to Chris Nicoli, chairman of the board of directors chairman. “We feel that Rockingham Park should have the opportunity to be competitive in its own industry.”
Hassan’s speech pleased Millenium Gaming.
“We’re happy to see the process started by a very strong message in support of expanded gambling by Gov. Hassan and the need to compete against Massachusetts,” spokesman Rich Killion said.
“I think it’s a great step in the right direction,” Rockingham Park president Ed Callahan said. “Hopefully, the Senate bill will progress well.”
Hassan’s support pleased sponsors of the Senate gaming bill.
Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, a co-sponsor with Morse and D’Allesandro, thought Hassan’s backing would get expanded gaming through the Legislature.
“I’m very encouraged expanded gambling will pass this session,” Rausch said.
“We have the votes to pass this in the Senate. I look forward to attending the ceremony where Gov. Hassan signs SB 152 into law.”
Rausch, who last year successfully sponsored a financing mechanism to finish the I-93 widening, said gaming revenues would accomplish that goal and fund work on the highway in 2016 and beyond.
“The timing is perfect,” he said.
Not everyone supports move
But Hassan already is getting criticism for tying the casino issue to her budget.
“Gov. Hassan’s decision to include casino license money in her proposed budget is a recipe for budget chaos,” said Jim Rubens, chairman of Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gaming.
Every state to legalize casinos has found it takes at least two years for revenues to flow, Rubens said, predicting the state budget would be unsustainable and agencies, including the university system, would suffer.
New Hampshire GOP chairman Jennifer Horn said Hassan playing a dangerous fiscal game because the Legislature has repeatedly rejected expanded gaming.
“By counting on highly speculative gambling revenues to balance the state budget, Gov. Hassan is constructing a fiscally irresponsible house of cards that could collapse at any moment,” Horn said.
House lawmakers must be convinced.
Rep. Betsy Burtis, D-Derry, remains on the fence.
“I have not made up my mind about expanded gaming in the state,” Burtis said.
She acknowledged state government has revenue issues, but isn’t sure gaming is the answer.
“My concern, based on the research I’ve been seeing, is that over time casinos don’t deliver the revenue they promise to deliver,” Burtis said.
Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, said he supports expanded gaming, but doesn’t want it limited to one license.
“I want to see freedom for businesses,” Baldasaro said.
“Maybe there would be casinos at Rockingham, Seabrook and Belmont.”