N.H. House Holds Hearing On Casino Bill

Concord — Clearly frustrated, Merrianne McDonald of Salem was blunt with House members when she testified in favor of casino legislation yesterday: If a casino in New Hampshire has support from large numbers of police officers and 63 percent of the public, why does the House always block it?

“We voted you in to represent us,” said McDonald, who’d like to see more state aid for her developmentally disabled son. “Why won’t you do what we want?”

That question likely became increasingly harder to answer yesterday as lawmakers heard conflicting pleas from more than 60 people during the House’s first public hearing on a state Senate casino bill.

The debate promises to grow even more complicated this morning when the two House committees working on the casino bill reconvene to hear from experts on casino regulation and begin to review the bill together.

Lack of Consensus

Yesterday, for every person like McDonald, who sees the casino bill as a way to pay for needed state services, there was someone predicting a casino would increase crime, ruin the state’s “family friendly” image or put theaters and restaurants out of business.

Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, warned that defeating the bill would be followed by a “giant sucking sound” of New Hampshire dollars being spent in Massachusetts casinos. Massachusetts lawmakers have approved three casinos in the state but have not yet awarded licenses.

Later, Rep. Patrick Bick, R-Salem, who opposes the bill, issued his own warning.

With one Massachusetts casino developer promising to invest $1.2 billion in Suffolk Downs, the $425 million casino envisioned in New Hampshire’s bill will be a “glorified slots barn,” not the high-end gambling palace supporters promise.

The casino bill, which passed the Senate on a 16-8 vote and has the support of Gov. Maggie Hassan, would allow a single “high end, highly regulated” casino anywhere in the state. The bill calls for a 14 percent tax on table game revenue and a 30 percent tax on slot machine revenue.

Under the bill, the single $80 million casino license would be awarded by a competitive bid; so far only Millennium Gaming of Nevada, which has an option to buy Rockingham Park in Salem, has been public about its intention to seek the license and build in Salem.

While casino bills have passed the Senate before, the House has historically opposed expanded gambling. Members of the House’s finance and ways and means committees heard testimony for nearly six hours yesterday, but they did not speak themselves save for a few questions from some members.

Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, a member of the House Finance Committee, asked Ed Callahan, the general manager of Rockingham Park, if he or anyone associated with Rockingham Park helped write the casino bill. Critics have maintained publicly that Millennium’s lobbyists helped draft the legislation.

Callahan said he had seen a draft of the bill a week before it was made public and may have offered some suggestions. Pressed further by Kurk, Callahan said, “I suspect a lot of people had a hand in drafting the legislation.”

Yesterday’s testimony began with Hassan, the first governor in several years to support expanded gambling. She said the $80 million license fee she included in her budget is critical if the state is going to improve support for higher education, school building aid and uncompensated health care incurred by the state’s hospitals.

Hassan acknowledged the social costs that come with gambling but said New Hampshire already has gambling and would see an increase in social costs when Massachusetts’s casinos open. The Senate’s bill, Hassan said, allots some of the casino’s revenue to treat problem gambling.

She pitched the casino bill as a way to create jobs and improve the economy and asked the House committees to consider a different question. “What are the social costs to all of us if our economy falls behind?” Hassan asked.

Regulation Concerns

A few speakers expressed concern about passing a casino bill before the state has set up casino regulations. The bill proposes doing them simultaneously. The concerned included Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice, whose office opposes the bill.

She reminded lawmakers that in 2010, the Legislature passed legislation creating a commission to study regulations for expanded gambling and recommend rules for New Hampshire, should legislation ever pass.

Lawmakers gave the commission up to $250,000, and after meeting eight times, the commission members concluded they needed expert advice from a gambling consultant and a lawyer. The commission wrote contracts paying the consultant $40,000 and the lawyer $10,000.

The Executive Council, however, denied the contracts at the recommendation of Councilor Chris Sununu, R-Newfields. At the time, Sununu said it was premature for the state to spend money writing casino regulations since it had not yet passed a casino bill.

Rice said the commission stopped meeting after its request for expertise was denied.

“The Legislature has deemed that (research) a necessary first step and it still has not been done,” Rice said. “This (casino) legislation is on a fast track, and there is no opportunity by an independent group. Do you really want to cut corners on making sure it’s done right?”

Rep. Jack Kelly, D-Nashua, asked Rice if the 120 days allowed in the bill for her office to do background checks on license bidders was enough. Rice said it wasn’t.

Law enforcement, however, is divided over the casino bill. The State Police Troopers Association and the New Hampshire Police Association both support it, and members from both groups downplayed fears of increased crime.

But the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police opposes the bill and has cited promises of increased crime.

Other opponents included the New Hampshire Council of Churches, the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association and the New Hampshire League of Women Voters.

And Rep. Mary Beth Walz, D-Bow, who researched gambling bills during her prior terms in the House, raised several concerns with the bill.

She said the background check is required only of applicants who own more than a 10 percent share in the project. That exception would permit “secret owners,” she said. And while the bill prohibits license holders and personnel from making political contributions, it does not stop either from forming a political action committee to politic on their behalf.

The $425 million minimum investment can include the $80 million license fee and the land purchase, meaning the actual casino would be something short of a $425 million building. And, she said, there is no penalty for a license holder who does not end up investing the full $425 million as required.

Amendment Efforts Ahead

At least one thing seemed certain yesterday: There will be efforts to amend the casino bill either before it gets to the full House or on the House floor.

As written, all license bidders must pay $500,000 just to apply for the license. The New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, which has expressed interest in a casino license, wants the bill rewritten to allow losing bidders to get most of that money back.

An attorney for the Green Meadow Golf Club in Hudson, which has also expressed interest in adding a casino, wants longer deadlines for submitting a license application.

Millennium has been working on its plans for years and intends to release its latest casino layout in a few weeks. But the Hudson golf club and the Loudon track are not as far along with their plans, and representatives for the golf course argue that more time will make the application process a truly competitive bid.

And Rep. JR Hoell, R-Dunbarton, said he intends to introduce an amendment prohibiting a single, large casino and instead allow several slot machines and table games throughout the state. They should be allowed in any restaurant or hotel that wants them, Hoell said.

“Let’s not give it to one large corporation out of Nevada (where Millennium has two casinos) who then has complete say in New Hampshire politics,” Hoell said.