Once a hot ticket, Manchester senator keeping up his fight for legal gambling

Monitor staff
Published: 2/19/2019 6:32:09 PM

It was the hot ticket item of 2013: casinos in the Granite State. Gov. Maggie Hassan championed it, businesses hailed it, and more than a few skeptics in the Legislature raised concerns on its potential effects.

Now, years after that and other efforts have fallen short, the spotlight has faded on New Hampshire’s gambling hopes. A hearing on a bill to legalize two casinos in New Hampshire and tax the proceeds drew a smaller-than-usual crowd in the Senate Finance committee Tuesday.

“I think this bill is past its time,” said Henry Veilleux, a lobbyist for the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling.

But Manchester Sen. Lou D’Allesandro – the two-decade, near-inseparable champion of the effort – hasn’t lost hope. Introducing table and slot machine gambling to the state could be a game changer for the state’s revenues and could bring, he told the committee Tuesday.

“We are always looking for revenue in a non-tax methodology to support programs in New Hampshire,” he said. “This not only supports programs in New Hampshire, but it provides construction jobs ... and it provides a series of other taxes to the local communities and to the state.”

Under D’Allesandro’s proposed legislation, Senate Bill New Hampshire could play host to up to two casinos, each offering video lottery machines and table games. Between the two casinos, a maximum of 5,000 lottery machines could be set up.

At stake is potentially hundreds of millions of dollars, according to state officials. In calculations prepared for the bill, the state Lottery Commission estimated that two casinos set up quickly and operated and maximum capacity could bring in $135 million by 2023 and $194 million by 2024. Of all that, about $102 million and $160 million would head back to the state.

That money could come from a 35 percent state tax on video lottery machines and an 18 percent cut out of table games, the Commission said. Portions of that profit would head back to the communities hosting the casinos, as well as programs run by the state to treat problem gaming. But the majority would head back in the gaming regulatory fund.

Sports betting, in contrast, could net an additional $3.5 million in taxes a year, according to the Commission’s calculations.

Jumping in wouldn’t be cheap: Any casino interested in establishing itself in New Hampshire would need to pay a $40 million fee to obtain a 10-year license, as well as $600 per machine that it installed. Local communities would also need to sign off on the locations of the casinos, according to the bill.

The effort would create new costs for the state, too. To start, at least two departments would need to staff up. The Lottery Commission would need 17 new employees, according to the bill at a cost of over a million dollars a year. The Department of Health and Human Services said it too would likely need to staff up for prevention and treatment programs for gambling in the state.

The Lottery Commission based its calculations around the assumption the state would find two casino operators, each with the maximum amount of machines, and each placed in areas of the state for “optimal revenue impact.”

D’Allesandro said interest has still been high, pointing to phone calls he’s received over the years from casino operators looking to expand. And one entity expressed public interest at the hearing.

Mike McLaughlin, a lobbyist for Seabrook Park, a simulcast sports betting facility in Seabrook that was recently sold to Eureka Casino Resorts, said the company could jump into the mix should the bill become law.

“If the bill passes they do have interest and they have the intuition that they feel that New England and New Hampshire can continue to support a level of gaming that would be successful for the state.”

But Veilleux raised concerns about the projected revenues. In prior debates, he said, supporters of the casino such as Hassan had pointed to the competitive advantage New Hampshire could harness by building a major casino to draw in those from around New England. But with the recent rise of two major casinos in Massachusetts, Veilleux said, New Hampshire might not bring in the kind of taxes projected by the Commission.

“Back in the day, when there was financial interest, maybe it could raise this much, but I think if you pass this bill now, you end up with a few small slot parlors, which would not be destination casinos,” he said.

Mclaughlin disagreed, arguing the demand for gambling outlets in New England remains high.

For D’Allesandro the 20-year struggle is a familiar one, with some near misses along the way. Last year, the bill won garnered the majority of a 12-11 vote in the Senate, but failed to pass because then-Senate President Chuck Morse had suspended rules and established a two-thirds required threshold. In other years, the bill has passed the Senate but come up short in the House.

D’Allesandro, the longest-serving member of the state senate, compared his efforts to that of Lawrence Pickett, a longtime Keene representative who saw New Hampshire legalize the first state lottery in the country in 1963, after four previous attempts.

“People always call and ask: ‘Is the ability to do a casino license in New Hampshire still alive?;” the senator said. “Yeah, sure it’s still alive, as long as I’m alive.”

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