New life for gambling legislation
Come January, for the first time in a decade, New Hampshire will have a governor who supports some form of expanded gambling.
Both Republican Ovide Lamontagne and Democrat Maggie Hassan say they want to allow a single casino in New Hampshire. They differ on the details, but either would be a change from incumbent Gov. John Lynch, whose longstanding wariness about expanded gambling crystallized last year into a veto threat. Lynch's predecessor, Craig Benson, also opposed expanded gambling.
But that doesn't mean gambling foes are ready to give up the perennial fight over whether expanded legal gaming should be used to bolster state revenues. Even with a governor willing to sign it, there's no guarantee a casino bill would make it through the Legislature particularly the 400-member House, the traditional killing floor for expanded-gambling legislation.
'You've got to get it through the House, and you've got to get it through the Senate,' said Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat and longtime supporter of expanded gambling. 'It looks better because you've got a positive situation (in the governor's office), but the devil is always in the details as to what they'll accept.'
Perennial, nonpartisan issue
Expanded gambling is a perennial issue, and one that splits both major political parties.
Some 35 percent of Democrats support some form of expanded gambling, with 44 percent opposed, according to an April survey by Dartmouth College's Nelson A. Rockefeller Center. Republicans are about evenly split, with 42 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed. Independents support expanded gambling, 45 percent to 38 percent opposed.
Overall, the survey found, 40.9 percent of New Hampshire voters support expanded gambling, while 41.6 percent are opposed a statistical tie, since the April 2-5 survey of 403 people had a 4.9 percent margin of error.
The state Republican Party platform adopted last weekend contained an anti-expanded gambling plank, while the Democratic Party platform adopted this summer is silent on the issue.
But those platforms are nonbinding, leaving a decision on whether to expand legal gambling - currently, the state allows lottery games, charitable gaming and racetrack betting - in the hands of individual lawmakers.
Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat elected in 1996 for the first of three terms, was the last governor to support expanded gambling, proposing video lottery games as a way to raise revenue for the state. In 2002, as she prepared to leave office, there was a last-ditch effort to legalize video lottery at racetracks or a casino in Berlin, but both bills died in the House. (Shaheen is now a U.S. senator.)
That pattern has been repeated time after time, with the House proving unfriendly territory for expanded-gambling bills.
'For close to 20 years now, casino bills have come up at least every two years . . . and the House religiously votes them down,' said Jim Rubens, a former Republican state senator who chairs the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling.
The most recent attempt, a bill that would have allowed two casinos, died in March on a 226-118 vote in the House.
Rubens said anti-gambling forces have been able to assemble a coalition across party lines, marshalling conservatives, liberals and libertarians.
Anti-tax Republicans, Rubens said, often worry about gambling as a representing a new tax on consumers and an expansion of state government. Democrats, he said, worry about the harm to local businesses and the potential for social problems like gambling addiction. And liberty-minded Republicans, he said, worry that allowing just one or two casinos would represent a sort of monopoly, and 'they despise the notion of a monopoly.'
But with Hassan or Lamontagne set to take office in January, the stage will be set for a casino bill to be signed into law if the Legislature can pass one. And, Rubens said, that will return the debate to where it was during Shaheen's time in office.
'We're in a very similar position to during her terms of office, in that the Legislature will determine whether we have a casino or not,' Rubens said. 'So this is not really new. We've been here before.'
What has changed, though, is the casino market in New England. Maine's second casino opened in June. Last year, Massachusetts passed a law allowing three casinos and one slots parlor.
Rubens said the proliferation of casinos in the region means any New Hampshire casino would likely rely only on the local market, which he said is too small to support a large, high-end casino.
'We've seen a maturation of the casino industry and a saturation of the casino market,' he said, adding, 'By the time Massachusetts builds the four big, relatively flashy casinos in its state, the New Hampshire market that will remain is what's called a local market or a casino convenience market. We call them 'slot barns.''
D'Allesandro, though, said the proliferation of casinos is creating support among legislators who are looking to keep New Hampshire residents from gambling in neighboring states.
'The trend line has been positive in light of the fact that they put it in Maine, they put it in Massachusetts, and we are now beginning to see the effects of doing it in Maine,' he said. 'New Hampshire dollars are now flowing to Maine. . . . I think that at least creates a concern among New Hampshire legislators that we are losing revenue.'
Candidates and casino
Hassan, of Exeter, and Lamontagne, of Manchester, both favor allowing a single casino, though they differ on the details. Hassan has been more flexible on expanded gambling in the past, supporting a number of bills during her three terms in the state Senate.
'Given what's happening in Massachusetts, where there are going to be at least three if not four high-end casinos that will draw business from New Hampshire - gambling revenues, rooms-and-meals revenues - I think it's important that we do what we've always done, which is compete with our neighbor to the south and make sure we get revenues up here,' Hassan said Thursday during a debate at New England College in Henniker.
Hassan said she supports 'one highly regulated, high-end casino that could truly compete with Massachusetts. Why? Because I don't want our gambling revenues and our rooms-and-meals revenues spent in Massachusetts, building their roads, their bridges and their schools, and then having the social and safety concerns that come with gambling, come back over the border and not having any revenues for us to address them.'
Lamontagne once was a vocal foe of expanded gambling. During his 1996 gubernatorial run, he blasted Shaheen for her video-gambling proposal.
'Jeanne Shaheen is willing to trade our quality of life here in New Hampshire for Las-Vegas style casinos,' he said that fall.
But this year, he's said he'd support a single casino on the Massachusetts border.
'I would only be open to one place, and that is Salem, at Rockingham Park, the historic site of gaming in New Hampshire, so long as there are proper protections in place, and controls. ... That has to be the approach we take,' he said Thursday. 'Otherwise, I am not behind expanded gaming under any circumstances.'
Lamontagne also said the money from a casino should be used only to lower taxes or for a current state commitment, such as the widening of Interstate 93.
Lamontagne's law firm, Divine Millimet, represents Rockingham Park, where Millennium Gaming has a plan to build a casino if and when the law is changed. Lamontagne's campaign has said he didn't work directly on the Rockingham Park portfolio and would sever his ties with the firm if elected.
Hassan last week said she wasn't convinced picking a site in advance was a good idea.
'I don't believe a governor should decide ahead of time exactly where a casino is going to be. I think it's important to have an open and transparent bidding process, so that we get competition and so that we can make sure that it's a transparent process as well,' she said. 'And that's very important in state government, to make sure that we have arms-length transactions.'
Millennium Gaming spokesman Rich Killion said the company doesn't have a preference between Lamontagne and Hassan, despite Lamontagne's support for the Rockingham Park location, and isn't getting involved in the gubernatorial race.
But it would be nice to have a pro-casino governor, he said.
'I think there's no question it helps having someone in the corner office who has a plan and an approach for the issue,' Killion said.
And the issue of expanded gambling is almost certain to arise next year, with two proposed bills already filed by incumbent representatives seeking re-election to the House.
One, filed by Dover Republican Michael Weeden, would lift the state's ban on gambling. The other, filed by Nashua Republican Bill Ohm, wouldn't legalize casinos but would specify that any revenue from any future casino should go to taxpayers, not the state treasury.
Ohm said he's still working on the precise language, but has in mind Alaska's model for distributing oil royalties, where Alaska residents receive an annual check.
D'Allesandro said he plans to introduce his own legislation for the next session, assuming he wins re-election to the Senate.
''I'm looking forward to it, as always, because I still believe, in terms of economic recovery and job creation, ... it's a vital part of the plan to get this economy going in the right direction,' D'Allesandro said.
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)