NH Panel Recommends Casino Bill Be Killed

But the full House of Representatives will entertain the legislation.

by Lynne Snierson

The New Hampshire House subcommittee studying expanded gambling narrowly voted May 15 to recommend that the bill to allow one high-end, highly-regulated destination casino be killed, but the full House will have its say.

The 45-member committee, comprised of members of the House Ways and Means Committee and Finance Committee, voted 23-22 on the first motion that the measure be deemed inexpedient to legislate.

Earlier in the legislative session, the State Senate passed the bill, which authorizes the single casino with 5,000 slot machines and 150 table games to be developed along the state's southern tier, 18-6 with bi-partisan support. The bill now moves to the 397-member House of Representatives for a vote as early as May 22.

The subcommittee vote followed weeks of study, testimony from people on all sides of the issue, and review. During the morning session, 17 amendments were presented to the committee but none was voted on.

Anti-casino forces argued that the expansion of gambling would result in additional social costs, including an increase in pathological gambling addiction, and harm the state's existing charitable gaming operation. There were also concerns that a single casino, owned by an out-of-state gaming corporation, would create a powerful monopoly with undue political influence and that local businesses would be cannibalized.

Those in favor of expanded gambling made the case for the creation of more than 2,000 construction jobs and 1,300 permanent jobs plus other economic benefits including a percentage of casino revenue and license fees. They stressed that with Massachusetts in the process of licensing three destination resort casinos, one to be located in the Boston region only 30 miles from the border, plus a single slots parlor, New Hampshire can ill afford to lose as much $75 million annually.

Should the expanded gambling bill, which has the full support of Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, pass in the House, the single casino license must be awarded through a competitive, transparent, and open bidding process. At least five potential bidders have already stepped forward, including Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas, which holds the option to purchase Rockingham Park.

"Today's committee vote continues to show the gaining momentum in the House for supporting a casino in New Hampshire," Millennium spokesman Rich Killion said. "The one vote difference between support and opposition among the joint committee is light years from where this process started just last month. Despite committee composition encompassing nearly a 2-to-1 history of opposing expanded gambling, this vote shows real progress and real momentum generating as it goes to the floor next week.

"What is surprising and unfortunate, however, is the chair's decision to not allow members to vote upon the thoughtful suggestions and amendments prepared by so many members. To have them ceremoniously discarded without a vote seems to be against the best traditions of the people's House."

Millennium unveiled its latest plans for a destination resort casino and 300-room hotel and convention center at Rockingham Park that would cost up to $600 million in a meeting at the track May 8. The architectural renderings show a one-mile main racetrack, a seven-furlong turf course, and a field of Thoroughbreds competing on the track.

Millennium co-chief executive officer and co-owner Bill Wortman reiterated that the return of live racing remains part of the plans to revitalize the 107-year-old track, which last ran a Thoroughbred meet in 2002 and a Standardbred meet in 2009. Nonetheless, he said it is premature at this stage to commit to which breed would race again at Rockingham because first the bill must pass the House and then Millennium must win the license.

"We look forward to House debate next week where the process will ensure every member is heard and everyone's vote is counted," Killion. "The people of New Hampshire have studied this issue for decades and support a casino in New Hampshire by 2-to-1 margins. As members of the House ponder this issue, we hope they listen to the people."