CONCORD, N.H. — A week after a gambling bill passed the state Senate, the New Hampshire House killed one casino bill Thursday but kept another alive, leaving open the possibility of passing its own gambling measure.
The House overwhelmingly rejected a bill that would have allowed two casinos to be built in the state while preserving another amid debate over the possibility of legalizing gambling in New Hampshire.
Last week the state Senate passed a casino bill that has the support of Gov. Maggie Hassan who included $80 million in revenue from casino license fees in her budget. That bill would allow one casino with 150 table games and 5,000 video slots. It’s widely believed that Rockingham Park in Salem would get that license.
Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, urged his colleagues to preserve one of the bills whether they support or oppose expanded gambling because it will increase the House’s options down the road. Legislative rules about bringing the proposal back for consideration make the vote largely symbolic, but it leaves the door open for House lawmakers to consider a gambling bill of their own.
The preserved bill would allow the same number of slots as the Senate bill, but spread over six locations and run via public-private partnership. It does not allow for table games. Opponents argued there wouldn’t be sufficient private interest in being the landlord for the state slots parlors and there wouldn’t be enough patrons to keep them operating.
Rep. Susan Almy, D-Lebonan, said similar systems have resulted in “large numbers of small sad places that cater only to the locals and don’t really make enough money to survive.”
The House voted 249-65 to reject a bill that would have allowed two casinos. Opponents argued it wouldn’t produce enough money for the state and didn’t have a competitive licensing process. Supporters said its passage would ensure the House has an official bargaining position when they consider the Senate gambling bill.
Rich Killion, a spokesman for Millennium Gaming, which has an option to buy Rockingham Park in Salem and build a facility there, said the House votes show representatives are open to a “serious and substantive discussion on the issue of expanded gambling.”
“I trust that conservation will broaden when (the Senate bill) is introduced. The New Hampshire citizens favor casino gambling in strong margins and they want that discussion to occur as well,” he added.
Critics have argued that the quick licensing process in the Senate’s gambling bill favors Millennium. Salem residents have overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding referendum endorsing the plan. Green Meadow Golf Club in Hudson and New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon have also pushed for casino legalization. Seabrook’s dog racing track has long been talked about as a potential casino site, but it appears to be unlikely to be considered.
The Senate proposal would tax the video slot proceeds at 30 percent and table games at 14 percent. It would require a $425 million investment. 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.
Even if New Hampshire does allow a casino to be built, a recent study by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies estimates the state would, at best, break if a casino is opened at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts as planned. Hassan said the study acknowledged a casino would generate the $80 million licensing fees to pay for the spending in her proposed budget. She has also said if New Hampshire doesn’t build a casino it will still pay for the social costs of expanded gambling when Massachusetts builds its casinos.