Selectmen Excited About Governor's Backing of Gaming
Board members revealed the next steps for the town of Salem and the state.
Salem Selectmen are energized in the wake of Gov. Maggie Hassan's budget address, specifically her inclusion of $80 million in revenue from expanded gaming.
"I'm very surprised but it's a good surprise," said Selectman Mike Lyons. "It's a win for us."
Hassan said Thursday that her budget includes the licensing for one high-end, highly regulated casino.
"We can no longer pretend that expanded gambling isn't coming to our communities," Hassan said in her budget address. "The question is: will we allow Massachusetts to take revenue from New Hampshire's residents to fund its needs, or will we develop our own plan that will allow us to address social costs and invest in our priorities."
Lyons said that the next step for Salem is to push the non-binding referendum in March that will ask Salem voters whether they would support that one casino at Rockingham Park.
He said that the board hopes for a good number of support on that referendum.
Lyons recognizes the House of Representatives as the wild card in order for legislation to get passed.
"I'm kind of getting the feeling, I don't want to jinx it, but I feel like there is momentum now," he said.
Selectmen Chairman Pat Hargreaves noted Hassan as having "the voice of the people" now on the casino subject.
Like Lyons, he said that the House is where work needs to be done, and Hassan has to get the legislators behind her.
As for Salem, another challenge awaits, that being the split support for expanded gaming among the local representatives.
"The Salem reps are the ones up there that are talking for us," Hargreaves said. "If you have four reps that are talking for us and four reps that are talking against us, it's sending mixed signals."
Hargreaves said that he believes a favorable vote from Salem residents on the non-binding referendum could sway some of those Salem representatives.
As the owner of the local Pats Key 'N Lock, Hargreaves said that neither he nor other small trade businesses in town would want to take on a project the scope of a Rockingham Park casino, but he added that a casino would attract new cars both driving by the local businesses and coming into Salem.
"For the past three years we all know the economy tanked, and I felt that I laid people off in order to keep my company running," he said. "With the new casino, we all understand the casino game. They already have their people. They already know how to build the building. The local 'mom and pop' shops don't want that. We don't want to go in and do a 20 million dollar job because we don't have the capability to do it."
Selectman Everett McBride Jr., who as a veteran of the board is no stranger to gaming debates, said that he has supported casinos from the beginning.
McBride said there was some disappointment when former Gov. John Lynch laid the hammer on expanded gaming with his statement last year that he would not support any gaming legislation that came to his desk.
"I'm hopeful again," McBride said of Hassan's support. "It's important for the selectmen to make sure the citizens know, and get all the information that we now know is on the bill."
"I think having the governor in favor of it helps," he added. "Hopefully she will caucus with the leaders of her party and help convince those that need the convincing that this is a good thing."
McBride said that he tries to tell every Salem resident who crosses his path to first support the operating budget, second support the proposed school renovations and third support the expanded gaming referendum.
Senate Bill 152 will go before the Senate Ways and Means Committee for a hearing on Feb. 19. The bill has bi-partisan sponsorship from state Sens. Chuck Morse (R-Salem) and Lou D'Allesandro (D-Manchester).
Morse said on Feb. 10 that the challenge is in the House, all but guaranteeing bill support from the N.H. Senate.
The bill would give 3 percent of revenues back to the casino's host community, with 1 percent to the abutting towns. Hargreaves quantified that total for Salem as $4.3 million.