At Senate unveiling, casino bill's focus stays on cash
CONCORD - With the backing of Gov. Maggie Hassan, key lawmakers unveiled a casino gambling proposal they say will provide more than $100 million in stable revenue for the state.
Hassan backed Senate Bill 152 at a public hearing Tuesday before the Senate Ways and Means Committee; three of its members are bill sponsors.
While supporters sang the praises of expanding gambling for state revenues, jobs and the creation of new satellite businesses, opponents claimed it would mean low-paying jobs, cannibalized businesses, increased crime and lower than anticipated state revenues.
"We've covered all the bases this time. We have the governor's support, which is paramount," said longtime proponent and the bill's prime sponsor, Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester. "We can do something powerful for New Hampshire."
But opponents included the attorney general, the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police and the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling.
Speaking for Attorney General Michael Delaney, Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice said her office continues its long opposition to expanded gambling. It would increase crime, gambling addiction and the potential for corruption, she said.
$80 million license fee
Under the bill, up to 5,000 video lottery machines and 150 table games would be allowed in one casino. A license would cost $80 million and supporters say it could bring in up to $130 million a year for the state, with the money distributed to higher education, the highway transportation system and North Country economic development.
The bill requires at least a $425 million investment, minus the $80 million license fee.
The Lottery Commission, State Police and the attorney general would regulate the casino at a cost of about $6 million to $7 million a year, which would come out of the state's 25 percent tax on video machines.
The host communities, surrounding communities and a gambling problem support program under the state Health and Human Services Department would receive an additional 5 percent of casino revenue.
The bill would require a selection process taking less than a year, and the formation of new divisions within existing agencies to regulate and oversee casino operations.
The bill also includes provisions to protect existing charitable gambling revenues for the state's non-profit agencies that sponsor the events.
One or more casinos?
Hassan has long supported one "high-end, highly regulated casino" along the southern border of the state.
She told the committee expanded gambling was the best way to pay for the state's priorities. The reality with Massachusetts approving three casinos, Hassan said, is New Hampshire residents would help fund Massachusetts' priorities, while Granite State communities would bear the social costs.
But Henry Veilleux, lobbyist for the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, said rather than a destination spot, the facility is more likely to be a convenience casino.
"We won't have the type of casino that is going to bring a lot of out-of-state money to New Hampshire." he said, noting it would replace about $200 million currently going to existing businesses.
Some at the hearing suggested there is room in the state for more than one casino. The bill creates a commission to study if more sites should be added in the future.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway lobbyist Ed Dupont cited a study saying the state would gain additional revenue with more casinos. The speedway wants a casino at its Loudon facility.
He said having only one location limits the state's revenues.
Nashua attorney Thomas Leonard, representing Green Meadow Golf Course in Hudson, which would also be a likely applicant for a casino, told the committee it is important everyone has a fair and open opportunity to win the license. He said the bill as written clearly favors one site, although he did not directly name Rockingham Park in Salem.
The Massachusetts effect
Lottery Commission Executive Director Charles McIntyre said revenues in the Berlin and Conway area dropped when the Oxford, Maine, casino opened.
He said there are three proposed casinos in the greater Boston area.
He said areas of the state within a 50-mile radius of Boston produced lottery sales of $143 million in 2012. McIntyre estimated the lottery's annual loss due to Massachusetts casinos to be 7 to 9 percent a year, or $5 million to $6.4 million.
D'Allesandro said if the state does not expand gambling, it will lose about $48 million to $50 million a year in existing revenues.
The Senate has passed numerous expanded gambling proposals over the years, but the House has never approved a bill allowing a casino or video slot machines.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee will meet March 5 to decide on its recommendation on the bill.