By Lynne Snierson
While testifying first before the New Hampshire Senate Ways and Means committee and saying the time to move forward on expanded gambling is now, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan urged lawmakers Feb. 19 to support legislation calling for one high-end, highly regulated casino to be located along New Hampshire's southern border with Massachusetts.
In her proposed biennial state budget, the governor included $80 million from a licensing fee for the casino even though expanded gambling is still illegal in the state. Developers of the casino, which would include 5,000 slot machines and 150 table games, would be required to make a minimum $425 million capital investment in the project. All applicants for the sole license would have to pay a non-refundable fee of $500,000 plus an additional $100,000 for background checks.
Democratic Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 152 along with Republican Sen. Chuck Morse, testified that under terms of the bill, the state would receive 14% of the gross revenue from table games and 30% of the taxable net income from slots. The majority of the funds would support the higher education trust fund; the repair and maintenance of highways, roads, and bridges; and development of the economically depressed North Country region of the state.
The host community would receive 3% of the proceeds, abutting communities would get 1%, and another 1% would be set aside to address addicted gamblers.
During more than three hours of input from varied interests that included trade associations, labor unions, law enforcement, the state Attorney General's office, advocacy groups, lobbyists for potential casino developers, legislators, and private citizens, among others, there was widespread support in favor of the bill's passage.
Many of the supporters reiterated their concerns that unless New Hampshire acts now, the three destination resort casinos and one stand-alone slots parlor to be developed in Massachusetts will siphon revenue as high as $50 million from state coffers without addressing any of the social problems and other detrimental issues residents will bring back across the border with them.
"I think we saw much more testimony today from those who are supporting the bill than from those who were opposed to it," said Rich Killion, spokesman for Millennium Gaming, the Las Vegas casino company that holds the option to buy Rockingham Park should the bill pass. "That's a tangible indicator in what we've seen from all of the public opinion polls, and that is that 62% of New Hampshire residents now support expanded gambling all across party lines–Independents, Republicans, and Democrats.
"They understand that Massachusetts is the big driver in this, and that if we do nothing, we're going to lose state revenue and we will lose jobs. It's New Hampshire dollars that will be spent in Massachusetts to improve Massachusetts roads and fund the Massachusetts state budget. That's what we heard today."
While Millennium Gaming is widely held to be the odds-on favorite to win the competitive bidding process for the sole casino license, representatives for other potential sites expressed their concerns that every applicant will receive equal consideration should the bill pass.
"If only one site is going to be chosen, it is imperative that everybody is given a fair shake," said attorney Thomas Leonard, testifying on behalf of Green Meadows Golf Club, a 400-acre site in Hudson that is located about 15 miles west of Rockingham Park.
"We have expressed our interest," lobbyist Ed DuPont said on behalf of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, an auto racing track that holds two NASCAR events per season in Loudon, in the center of the state. "If there is only one casino, it limits potential revenue for the state. Our data shows that multiple locations will bring more revenue, and we want to make sure we have an opportunity as well."
While DuPont was unavailable for comment, Leonard told The Blood-Horse his ownership group is currently holding talks about a partnership with major casino developers. Leonard would not disclose which casino magnates are involved.
Opponents of the bill's passage, who included Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice and the head of the state police chiefs' association, expressed concerns that the expansion of gambling would destroy New Hampshire's quality of life and reputation for being family-friendly, cannibalize existing local businesses, create pathological gamblers, and contribute to an increase in crime, domestic violence, divorces, bankruptcies, alcohol related incidents, and other social problems.
Following the hearing, Republican legislators held a news conference and called out Hassan for including an $80 million revenue source that does not yet exist in the budget. Republican Rep. David Hess said expanded gambling "currently is not a legal act, and is in fact, criminal."
The measure is expected to easily pass the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and then by early March be voted on by the full Senate, which is favored to pass it by an overwhelmingly bipartisan majority. Nonetheless, the House of Representatives remains a question mark.
In modern times, every expanded gambling measure has been killed in that chamber, and stiff opposition from a contingent of legislators remains.
William Wortman, co-owner and chief executive officer of Millennium Gaming, said Feb. 7 that if the bill passes before the current legislative session ends July 1, construction on a new $450 million Rockingham Park could be completed in 18 to 20 months and be operational by 2016.
Though Wortman said Millennium intends to bring live racing back to The Rock, it would depend upon what is happening at Suffolk Downs and with other developments on the New England gambling landscape at the time.
Wortman also said it remains undecided which breed of racing Rockingham, which last held a Thoroughbred meet in 2002 and a Standardbred meet in 2009, would host or how many days the track would race each year.
In 2009 New Hampshire passed a bill that does not require a racetrack to conduct live racing in order to offer simulcasting, and the regulation of live horse racing was defunded. There are no provisions for live racing, purse enhancements, breeding incentives, or protecting horse farms written into SB 152.