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Gambling in the Granite State

Competing casino bills headed to lawmakers

Lawmakers have a few more weeks to introduce bills, but there are already two that would legalize casino gambling – in very different ways.

One bill, backed by two longtime senators, envisions a single, highly regulated casino anywhere in the state with a 10-year, $80 million license fee. The legislation, introduced by Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat, and Sen. Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican, would tax slot revenue at 30 percent and table gambling proceeds at 14 percent, D’Allesandro said.

Sen. Jeff Woodburn, a Dalton Democrat, has recently signed on as a co-sponsor in exchange for some of the tax revenue going to the North Country for economic development, D’Allesandro said.

The other bill, introduced by Rep. Edmond Gionet, a Lincoln Republican, calls for two smaller casinos, one at the border with Massachusetts and the other in the White Mountains. Gionet is seeking a lower license fee of $10 million for each site that would be renewed annually for $1 million. But he wants a much higher tax rate – 49 percent – on all gambling revenue.

Gionet said yesterday he’s not trying to rescue the next state budget with immediate license fees. Instead, his goal is to generate ongoing license and tax revenue for road and bridge repairs. “This is a jobs bill,” Gionet said yesterday. “If you could put out another $10 million in (highway) contracts, just think about how many people you can put to work.”

Versions of both bills, which sponsors said should be publicly available soon on the Legislature’s website, have been debated – and defeated – in years past. But gambling supporters are more hopeful this year because Gov. Maggie Hassan, unlike her predecessor, has said she would support a single, highly-regulated casino in southern New Hampshire as a way to enhance the state’s revenue.

D’Allesandro said yesterday that he has talked with Hassan about his bill but declined to characterize her response. Gionet said he has a meeting with Hassan about his bill next week. Hassan has not commented on either proposal or said whether she will include casino revenue in her proposed budget, due next month.

The only casino money available to Hassan now would be from a casino license, and that’s not guaranteed given how long it can take to pass legislation, write casino regulations, solicit bids for a license and do thorough background checks on each applicant.

Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, said Massachusetts passed its casino legislation in November 2011 and has just now received bids for its licenses. Rubens said officials there don’t expect to see any license fees until May 2014.

“These steps will take no less than two to three years, and that would be the fastest any other state has been able to do this,” said Rubens, who has opposed expanded gambling at the Legislature for several years.

Two proposals

Initially both gambling bills called for two casino sites.

D’Allesandro said last night that he and Morse reduced their proposal to one site to accommodate Hassan’s position. Their bill requires the winning bidder to invest at least $450 million in the casino but it allows a casino to go anywhere, not just the southern part of the state, he said.

Gionet is adamant about two locations, he said, but he would allow license holders to spend as little as $10 million on each casino. And while Gionet said he is not committed to a particular location in the White Mountains, he thinks Lincoln would be a good choice.

The owner of the Indian Head Resort in Lincoln has told town officials that he would be willing to partner with a developer to put a casino on his 179 acres that sit close to Interstate 93. Gionet has asked the selectmen to include an article on the town warrant asking voters whether they’d support a casino in town.

“It’s just a feeler to get the sentiments of the community,” Gionet said. “If it turns out the town of Lincoln isn’t interested . . . I’m going to let it go someplace else.”

Expected revenues

Although lawmakers have not yet debated any specific casino proposals, the House Ways and Means Committee heard last week that the size and location of a casino and the tax rate the state levies will determine the revenues they can expect.

Steve Norton, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy, said his group’s research shows that the state would do best with a single casino located in the southern part of the state. That location would compete the best against the casinos in Maine and those coming in Massachusetts, he said. A northern location wouldn’t fare as well, he said, because the longer people must drive, the less likely they are to make the trip.

According to the center’s research, a single $500 million casino in southern New Hampshire, taxed at 49 percent, would net the state $51 million a year. A single casino the same size in the White Mountains would net the state $42 million, Norton said.

Neither example offers an easy comparison to the bills introduced so far.

The bill from D’Allesandro and Morse has the single location but would tax the casino at just 30 percent. Five percent of that tax revenue would be divided among the hosting community (3 percent); the abutters (1 percent) and treatment for problem gambling (1 percent).

Gionet’s proposal meanwhile, not only contemplates two sites but also calls a $10 million casino, not the $500 million site the center’s model contemplates.

Rubens said he’s skeptical the state would see the revenue the center estimated even if either bill matched their location, tax and size requirements.

Rubens said the center’s figures underestimate the full cost of problem gambling and also fail to consider what he believes will be the “cannibalization” of existing businesses, especially restaurants and hotels. He predicts a New Hampshire casino, no matter where it is, will largely attract only New Hampshire gamblers, not new money into the state.

“This whole Alice in Wonderland notion that casinos are an economic stimulus are just bogus,” Rubens said. “The dollars spent in a New Hampshire casino would be displaced from other retailers in New Hampshire.”

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

An earlier version of this story misstated Sen. Chuck Morse’s elected office.

Legacy Comments1

A casino at Rockingham Park will attract customers from Massachusetts who don't want to drive into Boston and Suffolk Downs. Easy access off of I-93.

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