New Hampshire House Kills Casino Gaming Bill

Passage would have paved way for return of Thoroughbred racing to Rockingham Park.

By Lynne Snierson

A bill to expand gambling in New Hampshire that would  have also opened the door for the return of live Thoroughbred racing at Rockingham Park was killed in a roll call vote of the House of Representatives May 22.

The measure was defeated even though it had the strong backing of the governor and was passed by a two-thirds majority of the State Senate earlier in the current legislative session.

After failing 199-164 and being deemed "Inexpedient To Legislate," a parliamentary motion to reconsider SB 152 was immediately passed. But that motion was defeated by an even greater margin of 212-152.

The vote differential of the two margins, which was larger than either side had anticipated, virtually assures that the bill will not be taken up again this year by the House. In modern times the 400-member chamber has killed every piece of expanded gambling legislation brought to the floor.

The action by the House, which has a Democratic majority, is perceived as a major blow to first-term Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, who campaigned in favor of one high-end, highly-regulated destination casino to be developed along the state's southern border. She had included $80 million from the license fee in her biennial budget and lobbied hard for the bill's passage.

"It is disappointing to see the House of Representatives break from the New Hampshire tradition of open and thorough debate on key issues by voting against moving forward with full consideration of SB 152 and the thoughtful, bipartisan amendments being offered by members," Gov. Hassan said in a statement issued after the vote.

"I remain committed to working with the legislature to finalize a balanced budget that restores the priorities that the people of New Hampshire support: job creation, higher education, economic development, strengthening our mental health system, and protecting the health and well-being of our communities," Hassan added. "Without passing SB 152, the path will be more difficult, but the people of New Hampshire expect us to do difficult things. We must work together to keep our state moving forward and to ensure a brighter, more innovative economic future for all Granite Staters."

The bill would have required a minimum investment of $425 million by the developer and authorized 5,000 slot machines and 150 table games at a single casino. Supporters urged its passage as an economic development plan that would bolster state revenues, create 2,000 construction jobs and 1,300 estimated permanent jobs at the property. Thirty percent of casino revenues had been earmarked for the state's higher education system, the economically depressed North Country region, and for the repair of highways and bridges.

Supporters also made their plea that New Hampshire could ill afford to do nothing while Massachusetts moved forward with plans for three destination resort casinos and one stand-alone slots parlor. They cited studies that the state would see $75 million cross over the southern border.

But opponents argued that the single casino would be unable to compete with billion dollar-plus projects in Massachusetts and it would create a monopoly for its ownership while providing undo political influence. Opponents also raised issues of gambling addiction and other social costs that they claimed would result in a net revenue loss and the cannibalization of local businesses. They also maintained that the expansion of gambling would destroy the "New Hampshire Advantage" and quality of life.

Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas, which is co-owned by William Wortman and William Paulos, purchased an option to buy Rockingham Park in 2007 and planned to exercise that option had the bill passed.

The bill called for an open, competitive, and transparent bidding process for the sole license. Millennium was perceived as the front-runner and was prepared to pursue the bid ardently.

On May 8 Wortman held a town hall meeting at Rockingham to unveil new architectural renderings of a destination casino that included a 300-room hotel, convention center, full service spa, and outdoor festival area. He said the project would cost in excess of $600 million, superseding an earlier design of a $450 million project that was primarily a slots facility.

Millennium spokesman Rich Killion said, "Certainly we are disappointed by today's vote.  It's unfortunate that the House chose today to stand against the people of New Hampshire and their 2-to-1 support for casino gambling in our state. We are heartened by the strong leadership by the Governor and Senate and House bill sponsors on this issue. They know that ceding to Massachusetts the thousands of new jobs, the millions in revenue, and its significant economic development is a decision we'll regret for generations to come."

Millennium's plans for Rockingham, which last hosted a live Thoroughbred meet in 2002 and a Standardbred meet in 2009, included a redesigned one-mile main track, a seven-furlong turf course and barns for up to 400 horses. While Wortman reiterated at the forum that it was premature to commit to the return of live racing at the 107-year-old track, he said that he would not make a major capital investment to include a track and build barns that would not be used.

"Regardless of today's outcome, we remain committed to the people of Salem and Rockingham Park," said Killion.