By Angeljean Chiaramida
---- — SEABROOK — As state lawmakers debate allowing a casino to be built in New Hampshire, Seabrook’s racing track looks to be an underdog.
The move to approve a single casino — most likely at Salem’s Rockingham Park — has gained historic momentum in the Statehouse. Last Thursday, with strong bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled chamber, New Hampshire’s state senators approved a bill giving the legalization of casino gambling a giant push in the Granite State.
Gov. Maggie Hassan strongly supports the bill that would allow one high-end, highly regulated casino near the state line with Massachusetts and has included $80 million in licensing fees in her budget to pressure lawmakers to approve a casino. She’s repeatedly warned state legislators that if New Hampshire fails to act quickly to legalize an in-state casino, the state will lose $75 million each year to Massachusetts, which approved allowing three casinos and a slots parlor last session.
Hassan made it clear she’s backing a bill with only one casino, but according to published reports, proposals would be accepted by any and all comers, with the nod going to the developer that offers the best deal for the state.
The bill’s quick licensing process appears to favor Rockingham Park, which has had a casino development plan ready for implementation for years. Millennium Gaming Inc. of Las Vegas has an option to buy the Salem racetrack and has proposed spending $450 million to build a facility there.
With Interstate 93 at its doorstep and a ready-made transportation infrastructure from the Metropolitan Boston population base, many see Rockingham as a sure thing to apply for and get the only license.
But Seabrook state Rep. Koko Perkins believes that overlooking Seabrook Greyhound Park could be a mistake. With a nearby airport at Pease and the recreational attraction the ocean offers, he said a casino in Seabrook would add more jobs as local businesses prosper. But, Perkins added that before a casino can be built, the bill has to pass the House — and that won’t be easy.
Even though Hassan is a Democrat and her party controls the House, the branch has historically rejected casino bills. The state Senate has approved casino gambling bills in the past only to watch them fail in the 400-member House, often referred to as the place gambling bills go to die.
The current bill is expected to face opposition in the House not only from lawmakers who oppose gaming, but also from those who want more than one casino and from others who want the state to raise needed revenue with an income or sales taxes. Hassan has vowed to veto such taxes.
Perkins said while he has heard from some of his Democratic colleagues that the bill has an uphill battle, he feels when push comes to shove, it just might have a chance of passage.
“The governor is in the Democrats’ caucus,” Perkins said. “If she walks in and says, ‘We have to have this bill if you want the money for health and human services, police and fire protection and highway maintenance,’ you have to think she’s going to carry some weight.”
Seabrook’s state representatives have historically favored casino gaming, especially if it incorporates Seabrook Greyhound Park, and this year is no different. Perkins as well as his wife, Rep. Amy Perkins, and state Rep. and Selectman Aboul Khan have supported legalizing gambling.
Khan said the bill got a boost when the New Hampshire Troopers Association and the New Hampshire Police Association came out in favor of it, a departure from its position in the past based on fear that gambling would bring with it an influx of crime. At a news conference last week, the two organizations said that a casino would not bring any more crime to the state than a large shopping mall. But without it, they added, vital state safety programs will suffer for lack of revenue.
“We’ve had Seabrook Greyhound Park here in Seabrook for 40 years,” Khan said. “We’ve seen no increase in problems here because of the park. A casino would bring jobs and revenue. “
The crime and morality factor have played a pivotal role in defeating gambling bills in the House in past session, and former Gov. John Lynch’s opposition to gaming’s expansion for what he called “quality of life” issues took the revenue source off the table. But when Hassan made a casino part of her campaign platform, it changed the political dynamic.
With a reported revenue shortfall and Democrats hoping to restore drastic cuts in the state budget last session, the money gaming offers has already enticed former anti-gaming legislators — like Concord Democrat Sen. Sylvia Larsen — to vote in favor.
The bill would allow up to 150 table games and 5,000 slot machines at a casino. The developer would be required to invest more than $400 million into the project. The bill provides protection to legal charity gaming currently in place when the casino is approved, like those at Seabrook Greyhound Park, Hampton Falls and Hampton Beach.
The Senate proposal would tax the video slot proceeds at 30 percent and table games at 14 percent. Five percent of the video lottery revenue would go to the host community, neighboring communities and services for problem gambling. The rest would be used to fund highway improvements, higher education and North Country development. The table game revenue would go to higher education.
Since some of the casino revenue would augment highway improvements, many are hoping its passage would squelch the House bill that’s proposing a sharp increase in New Hampshire’s gas tax.
The bill allows only one casino venue, cutting out other sites that have been discussed in years past, like Seabrook Greyhound Park, which is currently open seven days a week offering wagering on national horse and dog racing as well as a charity gambling poker room.
Also hoping for consideration are sites in New Hampshire’s economically stressed North Country, like its resort hotels, as well as Green Meadow Golf Club in Hudson and New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.