Senate Ways and Means panel approves casino bill
CONCORD – Casino gambling in the Granite State is a step closer to reality today as the Senate Ways and Means Committee voted 4-1 for the bill.
The Senate will vote on Senate Bill 152 on March 14. The bill allows one casino gambling facility in the state with up to 5,000 video slot machines and table games. Bill sponsors say it will provide about $130 million for the state, but a study last week says it may well cost the state as much money in social costs, regulation and crime as it produces.
The prime sponsor of SB 152, Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, said, "Its time has come," with Massachusetts set to open three casinos and a video-gaming barn.
"This (bill) provides an opportunity for private investment, some tax revenue to the state, and the ability to create some jobs," D'Allesandro said.
The lone Ways and Means committee opponent, committee Chair Sen. Bob Odell, R-Lempster, said he believes the state needs to have its regulatory structure in place prior to seeking bids for the casino. He also said he objected to Gov. Maggie Hassan, who supports the bill, including $80 million in casino licensing fees in her proposed budget without a bill having passed either the Senate or the House.
"I struggle with the whole concept that Massachusetts does something, so we should do something," Odell said.
The bill is expected to pass the Senate, but its fate in the House, which has historically rejected expanded gambling, is unclear.
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SALEM - During an appearance at Monday night's Board of Selectmen meeting, state Sen. Charles Morse, R-Salem, shared details of Senate Bill 152.
The bill, which would ultimately legalize video lottery and table gaming in New Hampshire, is scheduled to go through the Senate Ways and Means Committee with recommendation Tuesday morning.
Officials from Rockingham Park in Salem are already hoping to obtain the lone casino bid should SB 152 pass, with Salem residents to offer further input via a nonbinding casino referendum on the March 12 Town Meeting ballot.
The proposed bill includes a provision for the casino's host community to receive 3 percent of revenues earned, which town officials estimate could total up to $4.3 million annually. Local selectmen have already voiced unanimous support for expanded gambling in their hometown, while Gov. Maggie Hassan has likewise voiced her support for the bill.
Morse is one of three local legislators sponsoring SB 152, along with Sens. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, and James Rausch, R-Derry.
He told selectmen Monday night that money from casino revenue would be a huge tax boon for the local community and would also assist the state with the expansion of Interstate 93.
"It's a win-win for Salem and also for New Hampshire," he said.
The senator further noted that the pending legislation also offers provisions for future funding for human services programs, including those aimed at helping those with gambling addictions.
"I honestly believe if there are social costs, they're already here today and right now in New Hampshire, the services aren't there to deal with that," Morse said. "But we'll get no revenue and all the expenses if this doesn't get passed."
"Honestly, Rockingham is just sitting there and this is the perfect opportunity for New Hampshire. It's $130 million in (state) revenues if this passes," he continued.
Morse said a Salem casino would expand the local tax base by around 10 percent.
"I think there's a huge benefit to the town of Salem. The charities already know that," he said. "We all need to get out and vote on this next week. This is the very first time we've had support from a governor, and I need a strong vote from Salem to move this forward."
He said he expects strong support from Senate Ways and Means Committee this week, though perhaps a mixed response from the House later this year.
"The negative people always tend to speak a little louder," Morse said. "Honestly, I think it could be a challenge for Salem to get a license, but we still should be fighting for it."
Selectman Michael Lyons said he sees few other viable economic development options for that area of Salem.
"We've got 150 acres with its own exit off the highway," Lyons said. "But right now the options are very, very limited. The ship for retail has already sailed."
Selectman Stephen Campbell further noted that the casino could serve as a potential source of funding for local school projects - something worth considering since upgrades to Salem High School may loom on the horizon.
"Certainly the property tax portion of this would be a boon for the school district," he said.
State Rep. Gary Azarian, R-Salem, noted that if Massachusetts passes gaming and New Hampshire doesn't, the state would also lose revenues totaling several hundred million on potential "overflow" tax revenue from expansions to area hotel and restaurant offerings.
"The upside is great and the downside is even greater," Azarian said.
Azarian said "around 60 percent" of the local representatives favor the casino.
This story was written by Union Leader correspondent April Guilmet.