By Doug Ireland
---- — When the Senate votes today on an expanded gambling bill, talk will surely focus on Salem residents’ strong support of a casino at the polls Tuesday.
Eighty-one percent of voters said they want to see a casino at Rockingham Park, 4,598-1,074. The nonbinding vote raised advocates’ hopes for expanded gambling in New Hampshire.
That includes Rich Killion, spokesman for Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas, which has proposed a $425 million casino at the former horse track.
A casino would create thousands of jobs and provide much-needed revenue and economic development in Salem, according to Killion.
The vote sends a strong to state lawmakers, he said, and that message is: Salem residents want a casino in their community. He said he expected widespread support, but was surprised by the margin.
“That’s a number that stands by itself,” Killion said. “I can’t think of anything in modern election history that even compares to that. I think that is a testament to the people of Salem.”
It’s not the first time Salem residents have backed a casino. They did so in nonbinding votes in 1994 and 2003.
Rockingham Park president and general manager Edward Callahan and Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said they were pleased with the level of support. They are confident Salem’s overwhelming vote will help pave the way for casino at The Rock.
Morse is the sponsor of Senate Bill 152, the legislation senators are considering today that could bring up to 5,000 slot machines and 150 game tables to the park. Rockingham Park is struggling to survive after live racing was discontinued in 2010.
Callahan and Morse said they expected Salem residents to back a casino, but receiving 81 percent approval was an added bonus.
“Locally, Salem appears to be very, very interested,” Callahan said.
Selectmen also expected a lot of support.
All five selectmen and Town Manager Keith Hickey have said a casino is needed in town to spur economic development and reduce property taxes. Selectman Stephen Campbell said receiving support from 81 percent was tremendous.
“It’s a surprise to me — it’s unusual for any vote to 81 percent,” he said.
But Campbell said he occasionally hears from a local resident who is opposed to a casino.
“There are people who are really concerned about the social aspects of it,” he said.
They include residents worried about increased crime and gambling addiction.
“There are also people who believe we should not be funding government off sin taxes,” Campbell said, “and that we are preying on people’s weaknesses.”
Morse’s bill is expected to pass the Senate today, but there’s concern it could be defeated in the House.
Morse and Rep. Gary Azarian, R-Salem, said they need to convince some of their colleagues in the Legislature that expanded gambling is in the state’s best interest.
Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, said his group has talked to four of Salem’s nine representatives who oppose a casino — John Sytek, Patrick Bick, Marilinda Garcia and Bianca Garcia.
None of them could be reached for comment yesterday.
Azarian said yesterday lawmakers are obligated to support the wishes of their constituents — most of whom want a casino.
Opponents, including Rubens, said a casino would create low-wage jobs and increase taxes with more demand on infrastructure and services.
Selectmen’s Chairman Patrick Hargreaves said he was pleased with the vote, but now it’s up to the legislative delegation to get the bill passed.
“It definitely sends a message to the representatives in Concord,” Hargreaves said.
He said he would speak to the four lawmakers in opposition.
“If they still don’t support it, maybe they shouldn’t be re-elected in two years,” he said.
David Garcia, Salem Republican Town Committee chairman, said he’s not convinced a casino is in Salem’s best interests for a number of reasons, including the potential tax and social impact.
Garcia, the father of the Marilinda and Bianca Garcia, said he and his daughters aren’t necessarily opposed to a casino, they just don’t support aspects of the bill.
“The Garcia household looks at things from a philosophical perspective and finds that some things may conflict,” he said. “It’s not a black-and-white issue.”