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N.H. Panel Backs Casino

Concord — A bill backed by Gov. Maggie Hassan to legalize a casino in New Hampshire took its first step forward yesterday with a powerful Senate committee’s endorsement.

The Ways and Means Committee voted 4-1 to recommend passage of the bill that would legalize up to 5,000 video slot machines and 150 table games. The full Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill March 14. Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Morse, a bill sponsor, predicted it would pass easily.

New Hampshire’s 24-member state Senate has passed casino legislation in the past, but the 400-member House has never endorsed video slots.

Though the casino’s location would be open to competition, most believe it would be on New Hampshire’s border with Massachusetts, possibly in Salem or Hudson.

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, the bill’s prime sponsor, called the committee’s vote a “baby step” ahead of the full Senate vote.

“It’s a question of is it the right time. It seems to me it’s time has come,” said D’Allesandro, D-Manchester.

If New Hampshire doesn’t pass the bill, it will lose revenue to Maine and Massachusetts which have legalized video slots, he said. Maine has two casinos and Massachusetts is poised to add three casinos and a slots parlor.

Ways and Means Chairman Bob Odell was the lone dissenting vote.

“I don’t think this is the appropriate direction for New Hampshire,” said Odell, R-Lempster.

Odell said New Hampshire should first put regulations into place. He also said Hassan should not have included the proposed $80 million license fee in her budget proposal before lawmakers agreed to legalize a casino.

“I struggle with the concept that Massachusetts does something, we do something,” he said.

D’Allesandro said he is cautiously optimistic the House will pass the bill despite its longstanding opposition to video slots.

Former Gov. John Lynch squelched gambling supporters’ efforts to bring a casino to New Hampshire during his eight years in office by questioning whether it would negatively affect quality of life. Lynch threatened to veto a bill last year that would have legalized four casinos licensed to install up to 14,000 video slot machines and 420 table games. The bill died in the House despite supporters’ arguments New Hampshire would lose revenue to Massachusetts.

Hassan’s support for gambling has given supporters hope this year will be different.

“With Massachusetts moving forward with casino gambling, New Hampshire stands to lose $75 million per year if we fail to act. The true risk we all face is the risk of letting our economy fall behind and allowing the good jobs and growing businesses of the innovation economy to develop elsewhere,” Hassan said in a statement.

Rich Killion, spokesman for Millennium Gaming Inc., praised the bipartisan committee vote. Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas has an option to buy Rockingham Park race track in Salem and proposes spending $450 million building a facility at the track.

“The people do not want to see our elected leaders simply hand to Massachusetts tens of millions in non-taxpayer revenue, the thousands of jobs and significant economic development opportunities that should occur here in New Hampshire,” Killion said in a statement.

D’Allesandro said he was disappointed the latest proposal only allows one casino.

Hassan made it clear to gambling supporters that all she supported is one high-end, highly regulated casino. Her budget counts on the license revenue to pay for spending such as aid to higher education, and she has said the House would have to cut spending if it fails to approve a casino.

Morse, R-Salem, said it would be difficult for the House to act on the Senate gambling bill before the House votes on its version of the budget on April 3.

The proposal would tax the video slot proceeds at 30 percent and table games at 14 percent. It would require a minimum $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 gambling revenue would all go to higher education.

A study released last week said New Hampshire’s net benefit could be zero if a casino is built requiring a $500 million investment and authorizing 5,000 video slots in competition with a Massachusetts’ casino. An earlier study estimated New Hampshire would lose roughly $75 million a year in state lottery sales if it did not build a casino.

Meantime, the House is voting today on whether to raise the gas tax 15 cents to pay for highway improvements.