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Senator lays another casino bill on the table



Monitor staff
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Senate Bill 242SB 242 allows 2 casinos3,500 slot machines1,500160 table games80 table games$160 million in 2021“Rockingham is sold, it’s a done deal,” said Republican Rep. Gary Azarian of Salem. “This ship has sailed in my opinion.”

The sale of Rockingham Park last year, a site long seen as the prime location for a casino, hasn’t stopped lawmakers’ attempts to expand gambling in New Hampshire.

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro is behind a bill this year allowing two casinos in the state, though the Manchester Democrat said in a public hearing Tuesday he doesn’t know of any towns or cities in discussions with potential developers.

“There is a great deal of interest in coming to New Hampshire,” he assured the House Ways and Means Committee. Rockingham “would have been the dream venue, but I am sure others share a desire to have something like this.”

While in the past casino bills have drawn large crowds, far fewer lobbyists and residents showed up to testify for the hearing Tuesday. Some House committee members who have backed previous casino bills voiced concern with no clear sites emerging.

“Rockingham is sold, it’s a done deal,” said Republican Rep. Gary Azarian of Salem. “This ship has sailed in my opinion.”

The casino bill, Senate Bill 242, has already cleared the Senate in a 13-10 vote, but it faces its highest hurdle in the House. The lower chamber has never passed a casino bill. While supporters argue that casinos will boost state revenues, critics say they would lead to another addiction problem and suck business away from local restaurants and theaters.

This bill under consideration would authorize a large casino, with up to 3,500 slot machines and 160 table games, and a smaller one with up to 1,500 slot machines and 80 table games.

Each establishment would pay an initial licensing fee and then hand over a percentage of revenues to the state, which would distribute the dollars among the host community, neighboring towns and a problem gaming fund.

Projections show the state would net nearly $160 million in 2021, according to a fiscal note on the bill. But critics poked holes in those numbers, arguing that it’s highly unlikely any two casinos here would together have 5,000 slot machines, the maximum allowed under the bill. Nearby Foxwoods Resort Casino, one of the largest in the country, has 4,800 slot machines, according to its website.

“The numbers that have been presented are really pie-in-the-sky numbers,” said Rep. Patricia Lovejoy, a Stratham Democrat who testified in opposition to the bill.

As New Hampshire has long debated whether to allow casinos, neighboring Maine and Massachusetts have passed laws opening their states to expanded gambling. The $2.1 billion Wynn Boston Harbor casino complex is slated to open in 2019.

Casinos aren’t the only moneymaking option on the table this year. State representatives have passed a bill allowing keno, an electronic lottery game, to be played in restaurants and bars. A separate idea would allow the Lottery Commission to establish online scratch tickets, accessible through phone apps, for example.

It’s not clear whether Gov. Chris Sununu would sign the casino bill. During the campaign, the Republican said he is open to casino gambling should he see the “right” bill, but he did not elaborate on what that would look like. In a statement, his chief of staff, Jayne Millerick, said the governor “is closely monitoring SB 242 as it moves through the legislative process.”

In his first testimony before lawmakers since officially becoming the state’s top prosecutor four days ago, Gordon MacDonald warned a casino bill could lead to government corruption.

“This proposal would put a very important power in the hands of government officials, and that is to effectively grant a monopoly that is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars,” MacDonald said during a public hearing Tuesday. The state attorney general’s office has traditionally opposed casino gambling legislation.

D’Allesandro’s bill seeks to prevent that by prohibiting entities seeking a casino license from making political donations, though some committee members questioned whether that was constitutional.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)