SALEM — Place your bets.
New Hampshire lawmakers are ready to work on legislation that could put video slot machines or casino games at Rockingham Park.
The House and Senate Ways and Means Committees have competing measures allowing as many as four casinos or slot parlors. Public discussions begin next week.
Proponents are aiming to put together a gaming package that can win support from the House, Senate and Gov. John Lynch, who has threatened to veto gaming expansion in the past.
"While testimony may not be taken, eyeball-to-eyeball watchfulness is essential," said Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling. "Be assured that a dozen gambling lobbyists will be present."
Rubens said a new proposal could emerge. Lawmakers are keeping an eye on Massachusetts, where expanded gambling measures also are being considered.
"There could be a 'Hail, Mary' to do something instantaneously," to counter Massachusetts, he said. "There could be a sudden rush to impetuous action."
Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Morse, R-Salem, doesn't doubt lawmakers are mindful of what's going on in the Bay State.
"It would be wrong to let $75 million in revenue leave the state," he said.
But Morse doesn't see a rush job.
"This is just the beginning of the hard work," he said.
But it's work that some lawmakers believe has to happen quickly.
"I believe we are going to try and do what amendments are necessary to generate support for the concept of gaming," said Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, sponsor of the Senate bill. "The discussions are going to be what does it take to get the votes to pass this before Massachusetts."
Gaming company expects Bay State competition
Millennium Gaming Inc., which operates The Meadows Race Track and Casino in Pennsylvania, has an option to buy The Rock. The company has touted a plan to put 5,000 video slots at The Rock, if the state allows it to do so.
"We think Southern New Hampshire, and Salem in particular, is uniquely positioned to succeed," Millennium spokesman Rich Killion said.
Millennium isn't afraid of the competition from Massachusetts.
"It has always been in our plans that Massachusetts was going to go in that direction," Killion said.
"Salem is well-positioned to compete with anybody. Sixty percent of the revenue that would be derived out of expanded gambling at Rockingham Park would come from Massachusetts, even with casinos in Massachusetts," he said.
Polls show more than 60 percent of New Hampshire respondents favor expanded gaming, Killion said.
"If we don't do it, Massachusetts is," Killion said. "We would be taking a pass on all those jobs and the economic development that may ensue."
Selectman urges voters to speak out
Selectmen's Chairman Elizabeth Roth will be following the developments in Concord and encouraging voters to voice their support.
Roth recently toured Millennium's operation in Pennsylvania with Salem business leaders and met with officials there. She will report her findings to selectmen next week.
"I didn't find all the problems naysayers have given us," she said yesterday. "They are building so much in their community and they have the resources to do it."
Roth sees in expanded gaming an opportunity for a new revenue source that helps the community and the state, creates jobs and helps the track.
"I'm trying to breathe some life into our local economy," she said.
Lawmakers will have to look at what kind of games, how many, where casinos would be located, what fees gaming firms would be charged by the state, demands on public services, enforcement and treatment for gaming addiction.
Rubens also said a key issue is where the money goes. Supporters have been trying to influence the Legislature's final decision by playing to different constituencies to sway votes, he said.
"In the rumor mills is that money flows to Interstate 93," and finishing the highway widening, Rubens said. "Where the money goes will determine if money buys votes."
House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem, said he's hoping for a responsible proposal to expand gaming, which he supports for Salem and The Rock. Bettencourt said he sees many benefits: "Jobs, spinoff economic benefits, additional revenue to the state and the ability to revitalize Rockingham Park."
He said he won't be afraid to offer his opinions, but wants the panels to do their work.
"I think you'll see the House and Senate work together," Bettencourt said. "I think you will see one unified proposal."
That would come to a vote between January and June, Bettencourt said.
Bettencourt agrees with Rubens that what's happening in Massachusetts could influence the Legislature's action.
"Several of our neighboring states have taken up proposals to expand gaming and that is something we have to consider," he said. "Are we prepared to sit back and let dollars go to other states?"
The Senate Ways & Means Committee meets 2 p.m. Wednesday in a session booked for Statehouse Room 100. Before it is the Senate bill.
House Ways & Means meets the following week, 10 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20, to deal with the House bill. The session is scheduled in Legislative Office Building, Room 202.
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