Casino Bill Could Resurface in New Hampshire

A state senator said he working on a revision to legislation that died in the House.

by Lynne Snierson

Though a measure to expand gambling in New Hampshire and open the door to the possible return of live racing at Rockingham Park failed in the state legislature in May, the prime sponsor of the bill said he will try again during the fall session.

"We are working on writing a new bill," Democratic Sen. Lou D'Allesandro told July 30. "We're working on the oversight and working on the internal structure to make this bill a little different.

"We'll address the 95 amendments that were never heard in the House. I'm going to read all of them and try to gather some of the positives that would make the bill more acceptable in the House."

The Senate bill, which had the staunch support of first-term Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, called for the authorization of one high-end, highly regulated, destination resort casino to be located along the state's southern border with Massachusetts. The bill sailed through Senate on a bipartisan 18-6 vote, but died when it came to the floor of the House of Representatives 199-164 in May.

In modern times, the New Hampshire House has voted down every attempt to expand gambling in the Granite State.

This year supporters predicted the bill would pass because the state needs an additional funding source and the creation of construction and permanent jobs. Moreover, Hassan included an initial casino license fee of $80 million in her biennial budget.

There was also grave concern expressed that with Massachusetts in the process of licensing three destination resort casinos and one stand-alone slot machine parlor, New Hampshire residents would cross the border to gamble, and the loss to state revenue would be about $75 million a year.

But opponents cited increased social costs, gambling addiction, and other problems any expansion of gambling could create. Many members of the House said after the vote that though they were not opposed to the expansion of gambling, they could not support the Senate bill because it did not have enough regulatory provisions or enforcement in place.

When the House and Senate passed the state budget before the legislature adjourned in June, it included funding to establish a committee to study regulatory issues. Hassan will appoint members from the House and Senate to serve on the committee when the legislature reconvenes in September.

Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas, which holds the option to buy Rockingham Park should an expanded gambling bill pass and is widely viewed as the odds-on choice to win the license, unveiled a new and enlarged plan for the 107-year-old racetrack property last spring before the House vote. The architectural renderings for the casino project, which is estimated to cost between $600 million and $750 million, include a one-mile dirt track and a seven-furlong turf course.

Nonetheless, Millennium co-owner and co-chief executive officer William Wortman earlier this year said the return of live racing is part of the revitalization plans for Rockingham Park, which lasted hosted a Thoroughbred meet in 2002 and a Standardbred meet in 2009, but he could not commit to it. Wortman also said it was premature to discuss which breed of racing would be restored if racing were to return.

When reached July 30, Millennium officials had no comment.

When asked if his new version of the bill, to be introduced in September, would include any provisions for the return and regulation of live racing, D'Allesandro said: "No." He also would not predict the chances of the bill's passage.

"But we're hoping. We always hope," he said. "We hope to get a bill passed this time."

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission is continuing the detailed and intensive licensing application process for the three casinos, with one only designated for three separate geographical regions of the state, and the sole slots facility, which may be sited anywhere in the state.

Suffolk Downs and partner Caesars Entertainment is competing with Steve Wynn of Wynn resorts and Foxwoods Resorts for the sole Boston-area license. The MGC stated on its website that it plans to award the slots license before the end of the year, and the Boston-area license plus the western Massachusetts-area license in April.