By Doug Ireland
---- — ATKINSON — While Southern New Hampshire residents were bracing for a major winter storm yesterday, Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, was preparing for a storm of another kind.
That’s the storm he said could hit when newly elected Gov. Maggie Hassan presents her state budget next week.
As the first snowflakes started to fall outside, Morse and Sen. James Rausch, R-Derry, addressed a crowd of about 40 local business and political leaders at a Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce forum at the Atkinson Country Club.
“This is the calm before the storm,” said Morse, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
“Let’s hope the storm is tonight and not in the future,” he said. “The challenges are going to be in the governor’s presentation of the budget.”
The presentation will be made Thursday — Valentine’s Day, he said.
“I think you are going to be disappointed,” Morse said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a bed of roses.”
Morse said the state faces a fiscal shortfall of $45 million to $50 million and revenue estimates are grim. The estimates for 2012 were less than 1 percent, he said.
“In ‘13, those revenue estimates are facing a challenge,” he said.
Both senators told the crowd the state needs to embrace casino gambling to solve the budget dilemma and help fund completion of the Interstate 93 widening project from Salem to Manchester.
Morse praised Hassan for her endorsement of a single, well-regulated casino in the state. Former four-term Gov. John Lynch, who stepped down in January, opposed expanded gambling.
“There is no doubt that things have changed in New Hampshire,” Morse said. “I think it is important that the governor has supported us here in Salem.”
Morse is the sponsor of legislation to allow expanded gambling, with the hope a casino proposed by Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas would be allowed to operate at Rockingham Park in Salem. Millennium founder and co-CEO Bill Wortman pitched his $450 million plan to an audience of more than 200 people at the former racetrack Thursday night.
Wortman said a casino could create 2,000 construction jobs and 1,300 permanent jobs at the track.
Morse said New Hampshire needs to adopt expanded gambling as soon as possible to ward off competition from casinos in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
“They will affect the economy in the state if we don’t act,” Morse said. “It needs to happen.”
Revenue from the $80 million licensing fee to operate a casino could be used to plug holes in the 2014-2015 state budget if lawmakers pass expanded gambling Morse said. There would be $100,000 million in annual revenue once the casino opens, he said.
Morse said 45 percent of the revenue from gaming should be used to support the state’s university system, while another 45 percent should go toward funding roads, bridges and Interstate 93. The remaining 10 percent would be targeted for redevelopment of New Hampshire’s North Country, he said.
If a casino locates at Rockingham Park, Salem would receive 3 percent of the annual revenue, Morse said. Surrounding communities, including Windham and Derry, would get 1 percent.
Raush, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, provided an update on the I-93 construction. He said gambling revenue would help fund completion of the project, projected for 2020.
“2020 is critical because if we don’t (finish), we will lose some of the permits from the federal government,” he said.
The revenue would also help replace the state’s many “red-listed” bridges. Those are bridges the state Department of Transportation has determined desperately need work to remain open.
“The money we receive from gaming will easily support the bonds,” he said. “I am strongly supporting gambling. I am very, very hopeful that we will be able to get it through the legislative body. We will get it through the Senate.”
The event was also sponsored by the Salem Rotary Club.