By Lynne Snierson
New Hampshire edged closer to the expansion of gambling when the Senate Ways and Means Committee voted 4-1 on Mar. 5 to approve a bill that would authorize a single, high-end casino along the state's southern border with Massachusetts. The state Senate will take up the measure March 14.
Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan is a strong supporter of the passage of the measure, which calls for an $80 million license fee, a minimum investment of $425 million by the casino developer, 5,000 slot machines, and 150 table games. There would be a 30% tax rate on slots, with 3% going to the host community, 1% for the abutting communities, and 1% to fund gambling addiction programs.
The remaining 25% of the revenue would be dedicated to the repair of roads, bridges, and highways, higher education, and the economic development of the depressed North Country region.
The governor included revenue from the $80 million casino license fee in her biennial budget. Under terms of the bill, the casino license must be awarded through an open, transparent, and competitive bidding process.
Rockingham Park, which is located on the border with Massachusetts, is considered to be the odds-on choice to win the license, and Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas holds the option to buy the 107-year-old track should legislation pass and it win the bid. Millennium has released plans for a $450 million revitalized Rockingham and said it intends to restore live horse racing, but is undecided if that would be either Thoroughbred or Standardbred racing.
"Today's vote in the Senate Finance Committee is a big step forward thanks to a strong, bipartisan vote coming out of committee," Millennium Gaming spokesman Rich Killion said. "The growing consensus that now is the time to expand gambling is felt not just in the Senate but illustrated in well over 60% of New Hampshire residents supporting a casino in New Hampshire.
"The people do not want to see our elected leaders simply hand to Massachusetts the tens of millions in non-taxpayer revenue, the thousands of jobs, and significant economic development opportunities that should occur here in New Hampshire."
There are additional competitors for the license, and more are expected.
Officials with the Green Meadow Country Club in Hudson, about 15 minutes from Rockingham, and the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a NASCAR track in the center of the state, told The Blood-Horse they are in negotiations to partner with several major casino developers. Both representatives declined to reveal which casino companies are involved in the talks.
While the bill is expected to pass the Senate easily and with bipartisan support, the House of Representatives remains a question mark. In modern times, the House has killed every piece of legislation that would expand gambling, and strong opposition still remains.
A new study released March 1 by the non-profit New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies stated the projected annual profit of $91 million would be cut in half by the two planned Massachusetts casinos to be located with an hour's drive of the border, and that social costs incurred by New Hampshire residents would eat up the rest, resulting in a net negative.
Meanwhile, House leaders are currently crafting a biennial budget that does not include the $80 million casino license fee as a revenue source.