By John Toole
---- — CONCORD – A standing-room-only crowd packed a legislative hearing yesterday on the Senate’s gaming expansion bill as Gov. Maggie Hassan joined Salem area business and civic leaders pushing for passage.
Their allies included North Country officials and building trades unions hoping to realize economic benefits from a New Hampshire casino development.
Opposition came from chiefs of police and the attorney general, worried over crime and political corruption, and long-time gaming foes who see a casino as a threat to New Hampshire’s quality of life.
Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming Inc., which has an option to buy Rockingham Park in Salem, said it is prepared to pay the proposed $80 million licensing fee if the state awards the company the right to run a casino.
Potential rivals to Millennium, including the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon and operators of the Green Meadow Golf Club in Hudson, appealed to lawmakers to keep the licensing process fair and open to multiple venues.
The Statehouse hearing before the Senate Ways and Means Committee lasted about three hours.
The panel took testimony on Senate Bill 152, the bipartisan proposal from Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and Lou D-Allesandro, D-Manchester, that would permit a single casino in New Hampshire with up to 150 table games and 5,000 slot machines.
The bill establishes a bid process, regulation and enforcement under the Lottery Commission and state police, plus local voter approval.
Morse, who joined D’Allesandro and Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, another co-sponsor, in outlining the bill for reporters, said the host community would get 3 percent of revenues and abutting communities would share in 1 percent.
Rausch said the bill protects charity gaming by benchmarking 2012 revenues for those charities and requiring the casino make up the difference in the event of future losses for them.
Revenue would fund roads, colleges
The bill would put gaming revenue, projected by a consultant for Millennium at more than $120 million annually, into highways, state colleges and economic development for the North Country.
The bill also requires the licensee to put $425 million into development of the casino.
Millennium has estimated the project could create 2,000 construction jobs and 1,300 gaming jobs.
D’Allesandro described the casino proposal as an “economic recovery, job creation package” in a briefing for reporters. He said the license could be awarded by late summer of next year.
Governors rarely testify on bills, but, underscoring its importance to her budget, Hassan did so on behalf of the casino proposal.
She said a casino would provide an important economic boost “that we cannot afford to disregard,” but she also said it is a way to pay for state priorities.
“The revenue from one casino would mean tens of millions of dollars each year that could be used to restore some of our most pressing priorities,” Hassan said.
She acknowledged expanded gaming has been an ongoing, difficult debate.
“I ask those who have opposed such an effort in the past to consider the realities,” she said. “We can no longer pretend that gambling isn’t coming to our communities. It is already here.”
Failure to act would let Massachusetts capture revenue, while New Hampshire communities bear the cost without the benefits, Hassan said.
Plenty of support in Salem
Salem Town Administrator Keith Hickey testified to the support of Salem selectmen, while Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce executive director Donna Morris delivered that organization’s endorsement.
Salem businessman Howie Glynn, a founder of the N.H. Casino Now group, warned charity gaming faces a real threat from development of casinos in Massachusetts if New Hampshire doesn’t respond.
“We know New Hampshire people will drive across the border to access better facilities,” Glynn said.
Patti Drelick, Salem senior services director, said gaming has existed in Salem for more than 100 years and she’s never felt threatened or scared.
“Keep your rose-colored glasses on,” Drelick told lawmakers, urging passage.
The bill targets some revenue for North Country economic development, which officials in the northern part of the state find appealing.
“My people are hurting,” Gorham Selectman Paul Robitaille told the panel.
Trade unions also see benefits from casino development.
“It will certainly help get us in the right direction,” said Joe Casey, president of the New Hampshire Building Trades Council. “We believe a rising tide will lift all ships.”
Concerns arise over fairness
Attorney Thomas J. Leonard of Nashua, representing Green Meadow Golf Club, and lobbyist Ed Dupont, representing the speedway, pressed for a fair process, expressing concern the bill as written may favor Millennium.
Leonard characterized the bill as “definitely in favor of the most public proposal,” meaning Millennium’s Rockingham Park plans.
The Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gaming, Cornerstone Action, New Hampshire police chiefs and the attorney general opposed the bill because of concerns about crime, political corruption and gaming addiction.
Cornerstone Action’s Ashley Pratt said it was risky to build the state budget on potentially unsustainable revenue.
“This is a desperate move that would be in great error,” Pratt said.
Sponsors battled back when challenged over the legislation.
When Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, said she opposed the bill because the concept didn’t represent the New Hampshire she loves, Morse wondered how she would pay for state services.
She didn’t offer a method, but said gaming isn’t the appropriate source of revenue.
“I guess the short answer would be we have to tax and fee the people of New Hampshire,” Morse responded.
Police worry about crime
D’Allesandro took on the police chiefs over the crime issue, asking association president Richard Crate of Enfield whether the same concerns weren’t raised about the lottery way back in 1963.
Crate drew laughter when he said he responded, “I’d have to check with Chief Garone,” referring to long-time Derry police Chief Ed Garone.
D’Allesandro answered his own question, saying the same criticisms of the gaming bill were raised about the lottery then.
Though the attorney general has opposed expanded gaming through the years, Morse appeared surprised when deputy attorney general Ann Rice expressed concern about the proposed process and whether adequate regulatory structure is in place.
“I’d like to hear from the attorney general in writing,” Morse told her.
The Senate panel plans to work on the bill March 5 and is expected to send it to the Senate for a vote as soon as March 7.
Salem residents will consider a non-binding referendum on whether they want a casino on the Town Meeting ballot March 12.