EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 8, 2014

Casino vote is bad news for The Rock

Future of casino gambling appears bleak

By Doug Ireland
direland@eagletribune.com

---- — CONCORD — Advocates of a plan to bring expanded gambling to New Hampshire, including a casino at Rockingham Park in Salem, were dealt a losing hand yesterday.

The House voted, 192-172, against reconsidering Senate Bill 366, legislation calling for the establishment of two casinos in New Hampshire. The bill, killed in a 173-172 vote last week, proposed that the two facilities share 5,000 video slot machines and 240 table games.

But there was a glimmer of hope for gambling supporters. The House also voted, 183-179, yesterday against a request to indefinitely postpone action on the issue before the session ends in June.

Proponents of SB 366 said the state needs expanded gambling to generate revenue and create jobs. They included Rep. Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston.

Weyler told House members that state revenue figures released since last week show New Hampshire received $20 million less in April than anticipated.

Failing to reconsider the bill and expanded gambling would be a big mistake, he said.

Opponents say casinos would hurt New Hampshire’s image as a family-friendly state and lead to increased crime and corruption.

For Salem, the vote not to reconsider the bill means plans to establish a casino at the former racehorse track are on hold for at least another year, according to Edward Callahan, president and general manager of Rockingham Park.

Some Southern New Hampshire lawmakers who say expanded gambling would resolve the state’s need for millions of dollars in annual revenue hoped they could gain the additional votes needed to pass the bill.

But Callahan wasn’t as optimistic.

While the Senate has supported SB 366 and past gaming bills, the House has always been opposed to gambling legislation. Two other bills were killed earlier this year and another was defeated last year.

“It’s not a surprise,” Callahan said. “Reconsideration is never really a sure thing by any means.”

Callahan said he believes New Hampshire residents will now spend more of their money at new casinos being built in Massachusetts.

Rockingham Park will continue to host simulcast races and charitable gaming, he said.

Callahan said Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas still has an option to buy the park and build a multi-million-dollar casino and entertainment complex that Salem town officials, including all five selectmen, hope will create jobs and revitalize the local economy.

Selectmen Michael Lyons and Stephen Campbell said yesterday their community and the state would have benefited if the legislation had passed

Callahan has said the future of The Rock could be in jeopardy if expanded gambling were defeated.

He agreed with local lawmakers who said last week was the best opportunity ever to pass expanded gambling. But that opportunity — even if new bills are introduced again next year — may never come again, they said.

“The problem is,” Callahan said, “will there be a bill the majority can support?”

Rep. Joseph Sweeney, R-Salem, agrees that opportunity may never happen — even through a last-minute amendment this session.

“The options are still on the table, but it’s an uphill battle,” he said.

Sweeney is one of five Republican state representatives from Salem who supported the bill and among those who criticized three other Salem GOP lawmakers who did not.

Those three representatives are Patrick Bick, Marilinda Garcia and Bianca Garcia.

Their backing last week would have made all the difference, the supporters said.

“I’m disappointed,” Sweeney said. “There are people from Salem who didn’t represent the people.”

Eighty-one percent of Salem residents who turned out at the polls in March 2013 supported a nonbinding referendum calling for a casino at Rockingham Park.

Since the vote to kill the bill April 30, legislators on both sides of the issue lobbied their colleagues to change their minds or make sure they were present to vote.

None of Southern New Hampshire’s more than three dozen state representatives switched their votes since last week.

Rep. Robert Elliott, R-Salem, said casino supporters hoped to get additional votes but failed, receiving 172 both days.

Elliott said he was surprised by the 20-vote margin when only a single vote was needed to prevail last week.

This fall’s election will help determine the future of casino legislation when voters choose who they want to represent them in the Legislature, Elliott said.

“Now, it’s up to the people to decide in November,” he said.

The big difference yesterday, some said, was the number of people who voted after not doing so last week.

They included Rep. Norman Major, R-Plaistow. Major, who was battling a bacterial infection, said he was too ill to vote a week ago, but made sure he was present yesterday.

Other lawmakers called the ailing representative and offered rides because he couldn’t drive. Major’s wife, Brenda, drove him to the Statehouse.

“It was too important (to miss),” Major said.

He said he voted against the bill because he doesn’t believe casinos would be ideal for New Hampshire and they wouldn’t solve the state’s revenue needs.

“There is no free lunch,” he said.

Bianca Garcia said in a statement she voted in opposition because a casino would have a negative impact on her hometown of Salem.

“Families in the community with children had serious concerns with a casino coming into the heart of the community,” she said. “My vote represented those families from my town.”

Marilinda Garcia could not be reached yesterday for comment.

N.H. House Roll Call