Hassan: NH 'Can No Longer Pretend' Gambling Isn't Coming
Public hearing on NH casino bill gets heated as pros and cons examined.
The cries for and against expanded gambling were loud Tuesday at the New Hampshire Statehouse, with close to 20 people testifying over three hours on Senate Bill 152.
SB152 primary sponsor Sen. Lou D'Allesandro (D-Manchester), joined co-sponsors Sens. Chuck Morse (R-Salem) and Jim Rausch (R-Derry) during the Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing.
Gov. Maggie Hassan started off the hearing and stayed consistent with her budget presentation from Feb. 14 in getting behind the legislation.
"Across New Hampshire our citizens have made it clear that a high-end casino is their preferred way to increase state support for our priorities," she said.
"We can no longer pretend that gambling isn't coming to our communities," Hassan added. "It is already here."
Hassan voiced a sense of urgency given the competition in Massachusetts with 11 hopefuls gunning for three bids.
"It will bring an estimated 2,000 construction jobs and more than a thousand permanent jobs to New Hampshire," she said.
D'Allesandro outlined the entire bill, which will include a 10-year license awarded to one bidder. Fees include an $80 million license fee paid upon the issuance of the license, a $500,000 initial application fee and $100,000 to the Attorney General for its character and fitness review.
A $425 million minimum capital investment is also required within five years of approval.
Despite D'Allesandro's analysis of what he sees as the bill's positives, District 21 Sen. Martha Fuller-Clark (D-Portsmouth) kicked off opposition to the bill, insisting that a casino needs to stay out of the Granite State.
"I believe that gambling is the wrong solution to ensure economic security and to increase jobs," she said. "Across the country promised revenues of gambling have failed time and time again to materialize."
The deliberations reached a fever pitch during the lengthy hearing when Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice came out to oppose the legislation on behalf of her office.
Rice said that the "door is open for additional casinos" in the state once the gaming legislation is passed.
She added that casinos generally impact a 50-mile radius, and that she isn't sure bringing gambling to New Hampshire is the way to address problems already coming up from Massachusetts given that radius of impact.
Morse, the bill co-sponsor, barked back at Rice, demanding to know whether the N.H. Attorney General went down to stop the casinos in Massachusetts.
Rice said that Attorney General Michael Delaney did not go down to Massachusetts.
Throughout the hearing, Morse asked naysayers how they would balance the budget without the gaming revenue proposed in Hassan's budget.
Ashley Pratte, executive director at Cornerstone Policy Research and Cornerstone Action, said that it's imperative to balance the budget through "cutting spending," and not through what she referred to as "illegal activities."
She called a casino in the state an "act of desperation" in the search to find new revenue opportunities.
Testifying together on behalf of the state's North Country were Sen. Jeff Woodburn (D-Dalton) and Gorham Selectman Paul Robitaille.
A total of 30 percent of net machine income in SB152 will be distributed to various areas of need in the state. A total of 25 percent of the 30 percent will be broken up further, with 10 percent of that total going to North Country economic development.
The other 90 percent will be split evenly between higher education and infrastructure.
Woodburn said he is happy with the North Country assistance.
"(I'm) urging people to come to Coos County, look my people in the eye and say this risk is too great," he said in favor of the bill.
Many testified on the negative impacts that Hollywood Casino in Bangor, Maine and Oxford, Maine Casino have had on New Hampshire, such as milking lottery dollars from towns near that border.
A final presentation from N.H. Center for Public Policy Studies Executive Director Steve Norton said that annual revenues for Hollywood Casino have been north of $60 million per year. Oxford, Maine Casino opened last June and is an hour drive from North Conway, N.H.
He also broke down the casino contenders in Massachusetts as of Jan. 15, which include four applicants in the western part of the state, three in the greater Boston area and two slot parlor contenders in the southeastern region.
Norton said that a casino at Rockingham Park will have 6.4 million people within a 90-minute drive time, all with an aggregate income of $232 million.
Lobbyist Henry Vellieux, agent for the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, called himself the "skunk at the picnic," saying that the N.H. casino market is limited to a "local convenience" at the casino.
"We wont have the type of casino that is going to bring a lot of out-of-state money to N.H.," Vellieux said.
He cited numbers of 10,000 new gambling addicted that would be created by a casino in Salem specifically, adding that a facility would also have a cannibalization effect on local businesses.
Lobbying for the other side of the coin was James Demers of Millennium Gaming, who said that Massachusetts was the 41st state in the country to approve casino gambling.
"This isn't something that we're inventing something brand new," he said.
"If we do nothing, 80 million must be cut from the budget, but really another 46 million needs to be cut as well from existing revenues that wont exist in this state once Massachusetts casinos are open."
Demers said there is a "competitive advantage" to having a casino in N.H open first, given that customers are loyal to a casino that they visit.
Other details of the bill, which were outlined in a press conference with Morse, D'Allesandro and Rausch prior to the meeting, include 3 percent of the percentage of net machine income going to the host municipality, 1 percent going to the abutting municipalities and 1 percent going to the Commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services for the gaming problem support programs.