CONCORD — Another ill-fated casino bill and the governor’s call for legal sports betting have occupied most of the State House spotlight on gambling this year, but a bill that would allow what critics call cleverly disguised slot machines is quietly working its way through the Legislature.
SB 41 would allow historical racing machines, electronic gambling kiosks that enable players to bet on horse races that have already been run.
The bill would authorize installation of the machines in the 14 charitable gaming locations throughout the state, such as the River Casino and Sports Bar in Nashua, which are required under state law to give 35% of their gross profits to registered charities.
The charities rely heavily on gambling revenue, and are worried about the opening of the new Wynn Encore resort in Everett, Mass., scheduled for June 23.
“When Wynn opens with full-blown electronic gaming and unlimited bets, it’s going to have an impact on charitable gaming facilities in New Hampshire,” says Sen. Harold French, R-Franklin, chief sponsor of SB 41.
His district includes Belmont, which hosts the Lakes Region Casino at the site of the former greyhound racing track.
New Hampshire’s charitable casinos offer table games with a $10 maximum bet, but are anxious to see electronic gambling, which has the potential to attract an entirely new clientele.
No one opposed the bill at its Senate public hearing in January, and it passed the Senate on a voice vote in March.
The House Ways and Means Committee has had the bill since then and is scheduled to vote its recommendation on Tuesday, with a full House vote likely the first week of June.
Gov. Chris Sununu supports the bill but the opposition has finally begun to mobilize, and the outcome of Tuesday’s committee vote is uncertain. A similar bill filed by French last year got out of the Senate but stalled in the House.
“I don’t know how the vote is going to go on Tuesday,” said Rep. Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. “Two subcommittees did not reach any kind of decisions because no one really understands these machines. A couple of us saw a model in a hotel room and it became apparent to us that these are very close to a slot machine.”
Lobbyist Rick Newman with New Hampshire Government Solutions has represented the charitable casinos and the manufacturer of the gambling machines in the legislative process so far. He disputes the description of them as slot machines.
“They are slow, and don’t work off a random number generator,” he said. “They don’t attract everyone who would play slots. What they do is give us an electronic game option that we don’t have and the charities need to compete with the Oxford Casino (in Maine) and Encore, starting next month.”
Newman admits the machines are “similar to slot machines” but with significant differences.
“They play races so you can actually watch the race,” he said. “They give you all the stats for the horses, and unlike slot machines, they are set to pay off a certain amount. If you choose the right horse, you win, and you can win 1,000 times in a row, unlike a slot machine, which pays off at a certain percentage.”
Game of skill?
To the uninitiated, however, the historical racing machines look and sound like slot machines, except that a brief video of a horse race plays in a tiny box in the corner of the screen, which displays the same symbols and “reels” of a Vegas slot.
The horse race is randomly generated from a database of nearly 100,000 races. The machines have a “handicapping” feature that allows them to be marketed as skill-based gaming, and players can look at stats before placing their bets.
Most players don’t use the handicapping option, however, and instead use the “auto-cap” feature, which requires no skill or attention to horse racing.
“This is a back door to get video slot machines legalized in New Hampshire,” said Jim Reubens, former chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling. “The play is rapid and addictive, with no skill required.”
“Once you open the door to a certain type of gambling, it’s almost impossible to close it, and very difficult to oppose expansion,” he said.
Newman points out that the same committee examining SB 41 has already endorsed sports betting with no limits of any kind, and no revenue to the state.
“Historic horse racing can generate $8 million in revenue for the state, $4 million for charities and 100 to 300 new jobs,” he said.
Almy says opposition to the bill had been muted, until the latest casino bill proposed by Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, was crushed in the House.
“We’ve been getting a lot of emails about this one since the casino bill went down,” Almy said on Friday.
“Before that, all the people against this kind of gambling were so focused on the casino that they were not paying attention to this bill.”
They certainly are now, and are getting some assistance from the owners of the Oxford Casino in Maine. Lobbyists from the firm Preti Flaherty registered this month as representing Churchill Downs, the parent company of Oxford Casino.
“Oxford Casino does a lot of advertising in New Hampshire, and a significant amount of their business comes from here,” said Newman. “They know some of that is at risk if charity gaming grows in New Hampshire.”