NH Governor Puts Casino Fee Revenue in Budget

by Lynne Snierson

New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan ardently supported the expansion of gambling in the state Feb. 14 by unveiling a biennial budget that includes revenue to be generated by an $80 million licensing fee for the development of a single high-end casino.

Lawmakers are being urged to legalize casino gambling in the state now that neighboring Massachusetts has done the same. They are in the process of awarding licenses from 11 bidders for up to three destination resort casinos and one stand-alone slot machine facility.

"The question is: Will we allow Massachusetts to take revenue from New Hampshire's residents to fund its needs, or will we develop our own plan that will allow us to address social costs and invest in our priorities?" the governor said in her budget address.

The Senate Finance Committee will begin hearings Feb. 19 on a bill co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Lou D'Allesandro and Republican Chuck Morse that would authorize a single high-end, highly-regulated casino on the southern border with Massachusetts with an $80 million license fee. A separate bill authored by Republican Rep. Edmond Gionet calls for two casinos, one in the White Mountains region and the other in the southern tier, to be built with a licensing fee of $10 million each.

The governor's budget details indicate her preference for the Senate bill. While legislation to expand gambling has passed the upper legislative body in recent years, every piece of legislation to do the same has been killed in the House of Representatives.

The inclusion of the $80 million revenue source in her budget before gambling is legalized in New Hampshire is indicative Hassan intends to use her influence to ensure the bill is passed by the House before the end of the current session July 1.

Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas holds the option to purchase Rockingham Park in the event expanded gambling is legalized, and if it then wins the competitive bidding process to develop a full casino. Officials of the company have unveiled plans for a $450 million development on the grounds of the 107-year-old racetrack, and also stated that Millennium intends to bring live racing back to Rockingham Park.

Nevertheless, Millennium co-owner and chief executive officer William Wortman said Feb. 7 it remains undecided what type of racing and how much racing will be offered.

Wortman said developments at Suffolk Downs, which has partnered with Caesars Entertainment on a bid to win the license to build a $1 billion casino on the racetrack grounds in Massachusetts and would continue live Thoroughbred racing if successful, will factor into the decision. Moreover, Plainridge Race Course, the only harness racing track in Massachusetts, is in competition for the sole slots parlor license.

Rockingham last raced a Thoroughbred meet in 2002 and last hosted Standardbred racing in 2009.

"We're happy to see the process started by a very strong message in support of expanded gambling by Gov. Hassan and the need to compete against Massachusetts," Millennium spokesman Rich Killion said Feb. 14. "Next week, the next step in the process starts with Sens. D'Allesandro and Morse introducing SB152, which has a carefully constructed, constitutionally sound, and pragmatic process that can issue a license in this biennium.

"We look forward to adding our voice to the conversation on how the casino and its reliable and sustainable revenue will help create jobs and spur economic development."

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